Archive for November, 2010

Notes About Grey Group’s Secret Billing Documents

November 9, 2010

This article about Grey Group‘s internal billing documents may not seem like much, but it was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported. I first heard about the documents in 2004 and have been working, on and off, to get hold of them ever since.

Grey successfully persuaded New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan to seal the documents in 2006. Unfortunately for Grey, court access for journalists is kind of my “thing.” I knew the ruling was wrong on the law.  It took me four more years to get them unsealed.

This is an extreme example, but it’s an example nonetheless, of how difficult it can be to write stories about the advertising business that don’t show the industry in a flattering light.

I’d like to thank a few people who made this story possible. First, David Schulz of Levin Sullivan Koch & Schulz in New York, who agreed to refer the case to the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Practicum. Schulz also argued the case before the New York State Appellate Division.

Second, Patrick Kabat and Nabiha Syed who researched and wrote the successful appellate brief. They graduated Yale Law this year.

All of these lawyers represented me pro bono. If you are a large media corporation with a court access issues and an unspent budget for outside legal counsel, these are the lawyers to call.

Here is a Harper’s Index-style list of trivia about how this story came to be published:

  • 23: Number of different drafts of this story requested by various editors and lawyers at other publications that were never published.
  • 1: Number of drafts requested by editors at BNET.
  • 6: Number of years since I first received a tip that the documents existed
  • 4: Number of years since the documents were first filed in court.
  • 3: Number of business magazines that passed on the story.
  • 2: Number of daily newspapers who passed on the story.
  • 3: Number of lawyers who told me the story could not be published without a court ruling releasing them to me.
  • 0: Percentage of those lawyers who offered to petition the court to get them.
  • 3: Number of legal briefs I wrote myself that were unsuccessful in persuading New York State Supreme Court to release the documents.
  • 1: Grade out of 10 that I would give the New York State Supreme Court’s pro se services office on a scale measuring “helpfulness.”
  • 19: Number of months it took a state court judge to decide not to release the documents.
  • 5: Number of months it took the appeals court to overrule the original state court ruling.
  • 4: Number of Grey executives or their lawyers who implied or explicitly stated, on and off the record, that I would be sued for publishing this story.
  • 5: Number of appeals court judges who agreed unanimously, on all counts, that I was right and Grey was wrong.
  • Too many: Number of my friends or family who should have known better than to suggest, however well-intentioned they were, that maybe I ought to just drop it.