Following review, Business Insider stands by reports on wife of ex-Harvard president's critic

Business Insider says it is satisfied with the fairness and accuracy of stories that made plagiarism accusations against the wife of a hedge fund billionaire who was active in the ousting of Harvard President Claudine Gay

David Bauder
Sunday 14 January 2024 21:30 GMT

Business Insider’s top executive and parent company said Sunday they were satisfied with the fairness and accuracy of stories that made plagiarism accusations against a former MIT professor who is married to a prominent critic of former Harvard President Claudine Gay.

“We stand by Business Insider and its newsroom,” said a spokesman for Axel Springer, the German media company that owns the publication.

The company had said it would look into the stories about Neri Oxman, a prominent designer, following complaints by her husband, Bill Ackman, a Harvard graduate and CEO of the Pershing Square investment firm. He publicly campaigned against Gay, who resigned earlier this month following criticism of her answers at a congressional hearing on antisemitism and charges that her academic writing contained examples of improperly credited work.

With its stories, Business Insider raised both the idea of hypocrisy and the possibility that academic dishonesty is widespread, even among the nation's most prominent scholars.

Ackman's response, and the pressure that a well-connected person placed on the corporate owners of a journalism outlet, raised questions about the outlet's independence.

Business Insider and Axel Springer's "liability just goes up and up and up,” Ackman said Sunday in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “This is what they consider fair, accurate and well-documented reporting with appropriate timing. Incredible.”

Business Insider's first article, on Jan. 4, noted that Ackman had seized on revelations about Gay's work to back his efforts against her — but that the organization's journalists “found a similar pattern of plagiarism" by Oxman. A second piece, published the next day, said Ackman had stolen sentences and paragraphs from Wikipedia, fellow scholars and technical documents in a 2010 doctoral dissertation at M.I.T.

Ackman complained that it was a low blow to attack someone's family in such a manner and said Business Insider reporters gave him less than two hours to respond to the accusations. He suggested an editor there was an anti-Zionist. Oxman was born in Israel.

The business leader reached out in protest to board members at both Business Insider and Axel Springer. That led to Axel Springer telling The New York Times that questions had been raised about the motivation behind the articles and the reporting process, and the company promised to conduct a review.

On Sunday, Business Insider CEO Barbara Peng issued a statement saying “there was no unfair bias or personal, political and/or religious motivation in pursuit of the story.”

Peng said the stories were newsworthy and that Oxman, with a public profile as a prominent intellectual, was fair game as a subject. The stories were “accurate and the facts well-documented,” Peng said.

“Business Insider supports and empowers our journalists to share newsworthy, factual stories with our readers, and we do so with editorial independence,” Peng wrote.

Business Insider would not say who conducted the review of its work.

Ackman said his wife admitted to four missing quotation marks and one missed footnote in a 330-page dissertation. He said the articles could have “literally killed” his wife if not for the support of her family and friends.

“She has suffered severe emotional harm,” he wrote on X, “and as an introvert, it has been very, very difficult for her to make it through each day.”

For her part, Gay wrote in the Times that those who campaigned to have her ousted “often trafficked in lies and ad hominem insults, not reasoned arguments.” Harvard's first Black president said she was the subject of death threats and had “been called the N-word more times than I care to count.”

There was no immediate comment Sunday from Nicholas Carlson, Business Insider's global editor in chief. In a memo to his staff last weekend that was reported by The Washington Post, Carlson said he made the call to publish both of the stories and that he knew the process of preparing them was sound.

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