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NY Times bans Microsoft analysts from Microsoft stories

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The New York Times continues to perplex with its analyst-quoting policy. Rather than having analysts declare their ties to clients, the paper would prefer to quote analysts that have no experience with a client - a protocol which seems to undermine the very point of citing analysts.

The Register this week started pushing the Times to explain its quoting stance after noticing that Rob Enderle - the most quoted technology analyst on the planet - had been blocked from commenting on companies with which he has a financial relationship. The ban against Enderle appeared odd, given that Times reporters continue to cite analysts from larger firms who also have financial relationships with the companies discussed.

Times spokeswoman Abbe Serphos explained:

To maintain impartiality in its coverage, The Times tries to avoid quoting analysts who have an obvious business relationship with a company on, say, new products of that company.

Ideally, the analysts should be from a firm that does not have that company as a client. If the analyst is one of many in a large firm that does have the company as a client, the analyst quoted should not be one directly involved with that company's products.

A couple of things in that statement stand out.

For one, the paper only tries not to quote analysts who have business ties to a vendor. It's missing a firm policy.

Secondly, the flimsy policy prohibits reporters from querying those analysts that would seem to know their subjects best. In a story about Microsoft, a reporter should apparently quote an analyst who covers LSI Logic or orange juice makers, not one who covers Microsoft.

A better policy might insist that the Times disclose the ties between an analyst and a vendor, leaving the reader to make the credibility judgement.

As it stands, objective Times reporters must not form opinions about the companies they cover and must then quote analysts who don't cover the companies for opinions. That seems more like praying for accuracy than pursuing it.

The funny - or sad - thing is that the paper doesn't come close to following its own advice.

Just days after banning Enderle from discussing Microsoft because he has Microsoft as a client, the Times quoted Gartner analyst Michael Silver and AMR Research analyst Jim Murphy in a story about Microsoft's Windows and Office software.

If the paper would prefer not to quote an analyst who has experience with a client, it did a poor job. Silver is Gartner's vice president in charge of client computing. Microsoft happens to do lots of business with Gartner and also happens to have a client-software monopoly. We're guessing that Silver knows Microsoft's products well and has direct involvement with the company.

And, sure enough, he appears a number of times on Microsoft's own site and thousands of times in stories about Microsoft.

Jim Murphy - wait for it - covers Microsoft too and is even more prolific than Silver.

Both analysts, however, should hang their heads in shame because Enderle has ten times the Microsoft opining skills.

Since the Times can't follow its own policy, it should come as no surprise that other publications have shunned the Gray Lady as a standards setter. Rob Enderle this week made it into 51 stories - and counting - about Microsoft. ComputerWorld, InformationWeek, PC World, MarketWatch and InternetNews.com all quoted the analyst without ever touching on his relationship with Microsoft.

We can't quite tell why financial analysts have to disclose their ties to vendors, while technology analysts don't.

Part of the problem stems from the reticence of companies such as IDC and Gartner to reveal their clients. That should make everyone nervous, but it doesn't. So called objective technology publications keep publishing material bought by vendors without telling you this. They're also too lazy or scared to ignore the likes of Gartner and IDC until the firms change their disclosure rules.

As it turns out, there's a cottage industry devoted to Rob Enderle, where Linux zealots fire off this form letter to editors whenever Enderle appears talking about Microsoft. Perhaps the Linux crowd could put its fabled collective mind toward creating letters for all the major analysts. Lord knows, the Times could use some help. ®

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