Hazards of reporting

December 5, 2013, 11:33 AM UTC

In journalism these days, it seems that trouble — or at least complication — is never very far away. The other night I was at the annual gala for the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization that works to help reporters do their jobs without fear of violence or reprisal. Typically the CPJ is most active internationally, in journalistic danger zones such as Syria, Turkey, and China. Yet here was former CPJ chairman Paul Steiger (former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and current executive chairman of ProPublica) denouncing the Obama administration.

In what I see as a perverse sort of Nixon-goes-to-China play, Steiger noted how “an administration that took office promising to be the most transparent in history instead has carried out the most intrusive surveillance of reporters ever attempted. It also has made the most concerted effort at least since the Plumbers and the enemies lists of the Nixon administration to intimidate officials in Washington from ever talking to a reporter.” Said Steiger: “If we are going to be credible admonishing abusers of journalists abroad, we can’t stand silent when it is going on at home.” I couldn’t agree with you more, Paul.

The night reminded me that the most important stories are always the toughest ones to do, whether they are about oppressive regimes, government spying, or even our own parent companies and close competitors. Fortune has tackled all of the above over the years, and each presents its own challenges. Recently Fortune has continued its legacy of tough but fair coverage of our own corporation by writing about the pending spinoff of our parent company, Time Inc., from its parent, Time Warner — critically assessing, for instance, the level of debt the newly spun-off company might be saddled with.

And in this issue of Fortune, we have a deeply reported piece by Peter Elkind on Bloomberg LP, which is sensitive for a number of reasons. We are a direct competitor of Bloomberg and its magazines, Bloomberg Markets and Bloomberg Businessweek. Naysayers will suggest we are merely taking potshots at a rival, but any such criticism will have to overlook the last feature article we wrote about Bloomberg, in 2007, which concluded that the company was “a prodigious success.” No, our true reason for doing this story is to get inside one of the most powerful private companies in the world, run by one of the richest men on the planet, soon-to-be ex-New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, at the moment he’s about to return to his enterprise. If that isn’t a Fortune story, I don’t know what is.

I should also point out that we began this story some four months ago, long before Norman Pearlstine, now chief content officer at Time Inc., left Bloomberg to take his position at our company on Oct. 31. To be clear, Pearlstine was interviewed by Elkind on the record while he was working at Bloomberg, but once Pearlstine began talks with Time Inc. to leave Bloomberg, he recused himself from any involvement and didn’t see the article until it was published.

The news business has always been complicated, and it’s not getting any easier in the Digital Age — but it’s our job, and we accept that. Still, as Steiger suggests, it’s one thing to go up against a manipulative PR person, or even the Chinese authorities, and quite another to have to push back against our own government. Washington needs to understand that journalists have plenty to worry about already.

This story is from the December 23, 2013 issue of Fortune.