Bill Ackman, chief executive officer of Pershing Square Capital Management LP, speaks during an interview for an episode of "The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations" in New York, US, on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Ackman in October said he covered his short bet on US Treasuries, noting "there is too much risk in the world to remain short bonds at current long-term rates." Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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CNN  — 

News organizations seldomly see their reporting publicly called into question by their parent companies. But that rare and embarrassing scrutiny is precisely what German publishing powerhouse Axel Springer has treated its financial-focused US outlet, Business Insider, to.

The dust up comes as Business Insider takes fire from billionaire Bill Ackman for publishing a pair of stories last week reporting that his wife, former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Neri Oxman, had plagiarized some of her work. The startling revelations came after Ackman helped spearhead a campaign to oust Claudine Gay as Harvard University’s president. Ackman applied relentless pressure on Harvard to remove Gay, initially criticizing the academic for the school’s response to anti-Semitism and then later for plagiarism, the latter of which ultimately led to her removal. (The clear implication of hypocrisy was not lost on anyone.)

Oxman herself apologized in the wake of the Business Insider reporting, acknowledging there were some “errors” in her work. But the reporting enraged Ackman, who has extensively argued on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that his wife should be immune from criticism tied to his activism.

Instead of standing by its outlet as it faced a barrage of criticism, Axel Springer announced Sunday that it would take the extraordinary and unusual step of compelling the digital publication to conduct a “review” of its work — all while acknowledging that the veracity of the outlet’s reporting appeared to be sound.

“While the facts of the reports have not been disputed, over the past few days questions have been raised about the motivation and the process leading up to the reporting — questions that we take very seriously,” a spokesperson for Axel Springer said in a statement. “Our media brands operate independently, however all Axel Springer publications are committed to journalism that meets rigorous editorial standards and processes.”

Asked on Monday what prompted the review and whether it had to do with Ackman signaling he might reach out to KKR, the investment giant and largest shareholder of Axel Springer, the German publishing company issued a firm denial. Adib Sisani, its chief spokesperson, told CNN, “Very explicitly the review has nothing to do with anyone reaching out to KKR. They were not involved in the decision to do the review.” Sisani declined to say what the review will consist of, only adding that “it won’t take very long.”

Regardless of how long it takes or what specifically touched it off, the existence of any review has alarmed staffers inside Business Insider’s newsroom, where journalists have expressed worry about the German parent company’s second-guessing of its reporting, according to employees CNN spoke with on Monday. Insider Union also released a statement saying it is “disappointed to see Axel Springer publicly call the integrity of its journalists into question.”

Staffers at Business Insider are troubled about the precedent such a review might set, particularly on a punchy newsroom known for aggressively reporting on the wealthy and powerful. As one Business Insider staffer said, journalists are perturbed about “the chilling effect” that Axel Springer’s move could have on the organization.

“There’s a lot of concern,” added the staffer, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press about the matter.

“In the past Axel has been quite reliable about staying out of reporting, so I hope that this is resolved ASAP,” another staffer said. “As is, it sets a pretty horrible precedent that makes investigative reporting even more difficult.”

For his part, Nicholas Carlson, the global editor-in-chief of Business Insider, sent staffers a memo standing by the outlet’s reporting. Carlson said he made the call to publish the pair of stories and that he knows “our process was sound” and that the motivations were “truth and accountability.”

“Our colleagues at Axel Springer have asked that we look at our process leading up to publishing the story, to make sure it meets our standards,” Carlson wrote. “I stand proudly by our newsroom and therefore welcome any sort of review of our work as I am confident it will put my colleagues, our readers, and other stakeholders at ease.”

Whether Carlson actually welcomes the review or not, it is very much out of the ordinary, as Bill Grueskin, a renowned professor of professional practice at the Columbia Journalism School, said Monday. Grueskin said that he “can’t remember a news organization announcing a review like this.”

“It’s not uncommon to say you’re going to review a story when its accuracy has been challenged,” Grueskin explained. “But Axel Springer seems to be both vouching for the veracity of the story and fretting about the propriety of it.”

“At the least, it’d make more sense to do the investigation privately and then release the results or conclusions if they’re warranted,” added Grueskin, who said he didn’t see an issue with reporting about Oxman’s plagiarism. “But announcing the review in advance comes over as simply a tactic to placate Bill Ackman, who made it clear he won’t be happy until he gets an apology — something he doesn’t deserve, based on the evidence so far.”