Tag Archives: #ethics

Branding: Meta and WMX

tw.stock yahoo.com image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Rebranding is a big deal for any company, a decision that can make or break a company.

It’s also an occasion for a company leader to show how powerful he or she is. It’s usually their decision.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last October announced that the giant tech company was changing its name to “Meta,” which included a new corporate logo: A distorted, sideways figure eight similar to the mathematical symbol for infinity, blue on a white background.

The Facebook logo, a white letter F on a blue background, is one of the most recognizable corporate logos in the world. The new logo, says Zuckerberg, signals that the company is shooting for the “metaverse.” In Greek, the word “Meta” translates to “beyond,” reflecting Zuckerberg’s belief “there is always more to build.” The company, he believes, should not be identified only with what it is doing today. He sees a future digital universe combining online, virtual and augmented worlds that users can traverse seamlessly.

While announcing the new name, the company said it will change its stock ticker from FB to MVRS.

Monopoly power

It might be relevant, or not, that the identity transformation came a year after a congressional investigation into Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook found they hold “monopoly power” in the digital marketplace.

“To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons,” said the report from the subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law of the committee on the judiciary.

“Although these firms have delivered clear benefits to society, the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google has come at a price,” said the subcommittee. “These firms typically run the marketplace” while setting rules for others and playing by another set of rules, so that they are “unaccountable to anyone but themselves.”

The findings potentially set the stage for future legislation and action by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.

Government attention

Big and powerful companies always attract governmental attention.

Silicon Valley tech giant leaders Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Sundar Pichai of Google took what amounted to a tongue-lashing while appearing at a U.S. Senate hearing in October, 2020.

“The three witnesses we have before this committee today collectively pose, I believe, the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections,” said Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Democrat Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota accused Facebook of promoting divisiveness with algorithms that push users to polarizing content. Zuckerberg said the system directs users to content most likely to be of interest to them.

In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg stated that both political parties are pushing tech companies to make changes, but in opposite directions. Democrats, he said, say Facebook does not remove enough content while Republicans say the company removes too much.

Bloggers likely have run afoul of Facebook’s policing algorithms, including this one. A recent attempt to boost a post with a paid ad was answered with, “your ad won’t run.” The reason, said Facebook, was violations of policies against “ads about social issues, elections or politics.”

The post was about journalism ethics. Journalism by its very nature is about social issues. That’s like blaming a dog for being a dog, or a cat for being a cat. It’s the nature of the beast.

But puzzled or frustrated users probably are the least of Facebook’s worries. Governmental regulators have far more clout, and U.S. officials are not the only ones focusing on Facebook or Meta practices. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission in March fined Meta $18.9 million for 12 data breaches, saying the company violated several articles of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation to protect EU users’ data.

This has the earmarks of a gathering storm, one that might change the tech companies in unexpected ways.

Recalling Waste Management, Inc.

Although the comparisons are not exact, some of what Facebook is doing seems reminiscent of Waste Management, Inc., the giant waste disposal company once based in the Chicago area.

The company’s fortunes seemed to change after it, too, switched its name in 1993 to WMX Technologies, Inc., WMX being its stock ticker symbol.

The new name “really reflects more for our shareholders that they own WMX Technologies, which is a full-service company,” explained Dean Buntrock, chairman and chief executive officer. “I think we are really raising our profile by what we are doing.”

Waste Management was founded in 1968 as a regional waste hauler. Based in Oak Brook, Illinois, it grew into a giant international environmental-services firm with nine subsidiaries, and the nation’s biggest waste hauler. Buntrock said he named the company in 1968 himself. It became the world’s first global environmental services company.

I covered this transition as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

The reason Buntrock gave for the name change seems similar to the one given by Zuckerberg, that the company was changing and growing into activities unforeseen by its founders. Zuckerberg changed the stock ticker symbols.

Experts in crafting corporate names said the change to WMX Technologies was a terrible idea, because “Waste Management” perfectly described the company and its mission in a few words. It was instantly recognizable worldwide.

Corporate names

What’s in a corporate name?

“Everything,” said Naseem Javed, president of ABC Namebank, a global naming and branding consulting firm with offices in New York and Canada. “Heart, soul, body. Names are like people. Some are successful and some are not. They have to be cultivated. If you want a legendary name, it must pass the acid test. It must be powerful, unique, user-friendly. But most important, it must belong to you.”

Javed frowned on corporate initials, considering them passé because “initials belong to everybody.”

A poor name, said the expert, “is the fastest way to hit oblivion.”

And WMX Technologies did hit oblivion, although you couldn’t pin it all on the name change.

On March 12, 1998, WMX announced a merger with Houston-based USA Waste Services, Inc., a merger that looked like a minnow swallowing a whale. WMX had 58,800 employees worldwide at the time, and generated $9.2 billion in revenues the previous year. USA Waste, the third-ranked company in the waste industry after Browning Ferris Industries, employed 17,700 and had $2.6 billion in revenues in 1997. Combined, they became the world’s largest garbage company, controlling 20% of the U.S. market.

Unusual merger

The New York Times described it as “an unusual merger” that valued WMX at more than $13 billion, leaving its shareholder owning a majority of stock in the troubled market leader, but with USA Waste’s top management in charge. WMX lost control of its own company, once a Wall Street darling.

Deposed, WMX CEO Buntrock said in a statement: “This merger is a powerful combination and should enable shareholders, customers and employees of both companies to benefit.”

Peter Huizenga, a long-time Waste Management director whose family built the garbage-hauling giant, was less laudatory.

“It’s sad to see the end of a company as we had built it. It’s a shame that the wonderful company we built was not able to be sustained. What happened was the leadership that we were able to put together in the early days drifted away and new leadership was not put in place with the same quality….to take it to the next plateau.”

Leading up to the merger, WMX went through a period of turmoil in the board room, management purges and resignations and angry shareholders.

A colorful, outspoken man, Huizenga was a lawyer and helped to take Waste Management public in 1972 and served as a director for 30 years. He described himself as the “go-to guy.” Growing up in the Chicago area in a family of garbage haulers, he worked as an adolescent on a garbage truck daily from 2 a.m. to noon. He left WMX in 1990, but remained on the company’s board of directors until 1997.

“I would say Waste Management failed leadership,” said Huizenga. “The leadership failed Waste Management.” He died in 2018.


The extent of those failures soon became evident. Later in the same month WMX announced the merger with USA Waste Services, it said that the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the company for dubious accounting practices and internal controls. A month earlier, WMX said changing its accounting systems resulted in a $1.18 billion loss for 1997. The company also restated earnings back to 1992, erasing another$1.7 billion in profits. 

This was more than a change in accounting practices.

On March 26, 2002, the SEC filed a complaint in federal district court against Buntrock and five other top company executives with “a massive financial fraud motivated by greed and a desire to preserve professional and social status.”

Buntrock, the leader of the scheme, made false and misleading statements about the company’s financial performance, allowing them to unload company stock on unsuspecting investors, who lost more than $6 billion when the company’s bogus accounting was later revealed and the stock price dropped by more than 33 percent. When the company’s new management announced what was then the largest restatement in history, the company admitted that its profits had been overstated by $1.7 billion. The WMX executives falsified company results between 1992 and 1997.

A simple scheme

“Defendants’ scheme was simple,” said the SEC. “They improperly eliminated or deferred current period expenses in order to inflate earnings.” The company’s highest ranking officers also collected bonuses on what appeared to be outstanding company performance.

“For years, these defendants cooked the books, enriched themselves, preserved their jobs and duped unsuspecting shareholders,” said an SEC lawyer. “It is one of the most egregious accounting frauds we have seen.”

The merged waste disposal company agreed to pay $26.8 million to settle the SEC suit. That included $17.1 million on behalf of founder and former chairman Dean Buntrock, who paid another $2.3 million out of his own pocket. SEC accused him of leading the accounting hoax.

Arthur Andersen, the auditor for the two merged companies, paid $7 million to settle with SEC over allegations that it helped cook the books.

The scheme came to light after the new corporate CEO ordered a review of financial records.

And what do you suppose was the name of the newly merged trash hauling company? They called it Waste Management, resurrecting the perfect name that had been jettisoned by Buntrock, the discredited CEO. A good name just won’t die.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Erasing News Archives

NBCNews.com image

By Casey Bukro and Hugh Miller

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The searing images and reports of the January 6 terrorist mass attack on the nation’s Capital caused a long-simmering debate to resurface over preserving or expunging printed and visual information about people that could be damaging or embarrassing in the future.

Is this political correctness where people do not want to be confronted with their own past actions? Or recognition that media reports are not always fair to people and should be updated and corrected as a matter of social justice?

Just two days after the terrorist invasion, the MIT Technology Review published a story on “The scramble to archive Capitol insurrection footage before it disappears,” although the “global effort to save incriminating evidence raises ethical quandaries.”

The report by Tanya Basu described efforts to protect information before it disappears by Reddit users, the Bellingcat journalism site, a publicly editable Google spreadsheet of links, the Woke collective and Intelligence X, a European search engine.

Preserving information on the Capitol riot became urgent as “livestreams were turned off by platforms and broadcast news networks during the attack on the Capitol, and companies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitch and Twitter have since systematically removed posts that violated policies against violent or incendiary content,” Basu writes.

Without the footage captured by other sources, a substantial part of it would have been lost by being erased or deleted.

Ethical Quandaries

That also creates ethical quandaries. “The data now being archived could haunt people in the photos for years to come, even if they later renounce or pay criminal penalties for their actions,” writes Basu.

It is a quandary with a long and growing history as media consider the personal consequences of their reports in a society developing new awareness in the wake of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns.

The Boston Globe announced “Fresh Start,” allowing people to ask the newspaper to update or anonymize past coverage of them online. It is part of a broader effort to rethink the Globe’s criminal justice coverage and how it affects communities of color, amid a national reckoning over racial inequality.

It is similar to “right to forget” programs at newsrooms across the country, writes Zoe Greenberg, “meant to address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes, or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life.” Globe editor Brian McGrory said it is an attempt to address the criminal justice system’s “disproportionate impact on people of color.” To apply, people fill out a short form online with an explanation of why they are requesting a review, including relevant court documents.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer launched a similar initiative in 2019.

Responsible, Fair, Respect

In the June, 2020 Quill Magazine, the Society of Professional Journalists former national ethics chair, Lynn Walsh, writes: “The answer is not to stop recording, reporting or take photos at protests and rallies. The answer is to do so responsibly, fairly and with respect. While images of pain, anger and excitement can be powerful, remember the people in them are experiencing these emotions in real time. Documenting this is part of our role and duty to the public and the people in these public demonstrations are an important part of the story.”

Walsh gave 14 pointers journalists should keep in mind.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has been asked repeatedly for advice on this vexing problem of preserving or destroying archived information about distraught folks in the news, past or present.

Back in 2005, the executive editor of a California chain of community newspapers called AdviceLine with a newly emerging problem: People wanted old stories about them removed from the web archives, or blocked from Google searches. They want stories about them “unpublished.” Complicating the issue, companies have gone into business to help people scour themselves out of online archive data.


The AdviceLine ethics consultant, David Ozar, professor of Social and Professional Ethics at Loyola University Chicago at the time, said, “this is an issue of benefit/harm and the first issue is what benefit the archives offer the community. The answer is the benefit of an historical record.” Ozar decided there is no ethical difference between written or digital archives.

The newspaper should not help people remove information from the historical record, the ethicist decided. The paper may chose to see if Google will assist those people, but the paper has no obligation to bear great expense to help these people block access to information about them.

“All this assumes, of course, that the paper has taken the usual care in publishing only news that is supported by the evidence and has taken care also to correct any errors in its publishing,” said Ozar.

Times change. And, as the Boston Globe’s “Fresh Start” program shows, perspectives and media social sensitivity change. Norms change.

A Fresh Look

AdviceLine asked Hugh Miller, to take a fresh look at the long-smoldering controversy over expunging information from media records or archives. A fresh look leavened with the latest ideas about journalism professionalism and social justice. Miller is professor of philosophy emeritus, Loyola University Chicago, and one of the AdviceLine advisors who takes calls from professional journalists seeking guidance on ethics. Here are his remarks in full:

Should news writers and editors accede to requests by the subjects of their already published stories to expunge those stories, or at least to edit them to remove the names of the subjects, in order to protect those subjects from reputational or other future harm?

Phrased in such stark terms, the answer seems straightforward. Published news pieces are in the public record. Retroactively altering them seems to amount to editing history — Winston Smith’s day job in the “Ministry of Truth” in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Adopting it as a policy would shake, if not destroy, readers’ and listeners’ confidence in the integrity of the outlet’s reporting, and integrity is the coin of the realm in journalism. It would also open the floodgates of appeal by subjects (and their politically powerful or well-connected friends) clamoring to edit their appearance to repair or boost their “brands.” Corrections should be rare, confined to errors of fact, and prominently displayed.

Student Editor

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has handled such cases. In one, dating back to 2010, a student newspaper editor was approached by another student about a story in which he had been the subject. Student S. was the son of a prominent business executive who had just been arrested in connection with a criminal investigation. The article treated the son’s reaction to the news. Some days after its publication, S. called, asking that the story be taken down from the website, or at least anonymized, claiming that the article was causing him emotional distress and might be damaging to his career prospects. We discussed the matter with the editor, and reached the conclusion that it was best that the article stand, since retroactive editing would damage the paper’s reputation for integrity of reporting. The time for making decisions about what to say, and how to say it, about the subjects of the story was prior to publication — not after.

Of course, reality is commonly messier than this. Suppose the subject had been the victim of a reputational hit job by a mean-spirited (or even a “crusading”) writer or editor? Or suppose that a group of people – Blacks, indigenous people, persons of color, Muslims, Jews, etc. — had been the target of systematic insensitive reporting that was damaging to their reputations and careers? The Boston Globe recently launched an experimental initiative called “Fresh Start” that seeks to “address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life,” particularly of African Americans. Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Massachusetts, pointed out that defendants are written about early in the criminal process. Reporters rarely follow up when the initial information turns out to be wrong or less serious than initially reported, said Benedetti. In other cases, people are convicted and serve their sentences, but when they apply for a job, articles about past misdeeds prevent them from being hired. If this amounts to an injustice, as it seems to, why not correct it by means of what I call “retrospective editing?”

When it comes to established past cases, the Globe’s initiative has some moral merit. For better or worse, we live in a world in which employers and others Google prospective employees, and even review their social media accounts, making hiring, promotion and dismissal decisions. While the blame for indiscretions on the latter might rest squarely with the account owner, the same can’t be said for what pops up when an all-seeing and indifferent search engine finds public records of that same person. Over those stories the subject may have had little or no control, and been given little input. The Globe is not accepting appeals from organizations or corporations, only individuals, and applicants must make a case that their coverage has unfairly damaged them, to have their appeal for expungement or anonymization even considered. The emendation of a small, back-page story to give its victim a clean bill of online health seems like a small price to pay.

Retrospective Editing Policy

But as an ongoing policy, having a permanent “retrospective editing” policy is inadvisable. As in our 11-year-old case, the time for considering what and how much to say about a subject, and how to say it, is before the story is published, not later. The SPJ Code of Ethics strongly emphasizes the aspect of “minimizing harm,” especially to minors, the victims of sex crimes and subjects who are incapable of giving consent or who are simply inexperienced in dealing with the press, and with appearing in it. It also encourages writers and editors to “consider cultural differences in approach and treatment,” and to “consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.” These all address the concerns the Globe is seeking to deal with in it “Fresh Start” experiment.

But, again, these important considerations should come before the story goes to press or air. The damage to the integrity and credibility of a news outlet that was known regularly to retrospectively edit its stories would be too great to sustain, especially in a media environment like the one we have been living in for the past few years, where charges of “media bias” and “fake news” have already sadly degraded public trust in the media.

Retrospective editing is no substitute for the real thing — just like retrospective justice.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.#ethics