Did Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes lie about Fox’s offer to buy his company?

Just keep walking.
Just keep walking.
Image: AP/Nati Harnik
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This piece was updated with comments from Time Warner and Variety.

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes was in Sun Valley, Idaho, last week for the annual media conference there as rumors swirled that his company was an acquisition target. A reporter asked if he knew anything about interest from Google or 21st Century Fox.

“I know nothing about it,” he told Variety, before ducking away for coffee.

Now it turns out that Bewkes knew quite a bit: Rupert Murdoch’s Fox confirmed this morning that it had made a formal offer to acquire Time Warner in June, but was rebuffed. The $80 billion offer, which Time Warner also confirmed, included details about cost savings, regulatory issues, and financing the deal, according to reports.

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Update (1:09pm ET): Time Warner says Bewkes wasn’t referring to Fox in his exchange with Variety in Sun Valley. “In response to a question about interest from Google, Jeff noted that he knew nothing about it,” the company said in a statement.

The Variety reporter, Brent Lang, recalls the exchange differently. “I asked him a direct question about Fox and Google, and that was his response,” he said in a phone interview with Quartz. “Before I wrote that, I let Time Warner’s corporate communications team know that I was putting up the story, and they put up no qualms or resistance to what I was writing.”

Lang added, “If he is changing his answer, that’s on him. But he was responding to a direct question. I accurately quoted him.”

Update (3:57pm ET): In a subsequent interview with Quartz, Time Warner spokesman Keith Cocozza said the exchange happened this way: Bewkes was asked whether his company was in acquisition talks with Google or Fox. Bewkes said something to the effect of, “They’re not. I know nothing about it. I can’t get into every rumor.”

Cocozza said the first part of Bewkes’s answer—”They’re not. I know nothing about it”—was in reference to Google. The second part—”I can’t get into every rumor”—was in reference to Fox. Cocozza said Time Warner couldn’t correct the Variety report last week without tipping off Lang that there were, in fact, talks with Fox.

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So, did Bewkes lie?

Perhaps he had no choice. He couldn’t have broken the news right then and there, in a polo shirt and boat shoes. What was he supposed to say?

Well, he could have ignored the question, like so many other moguls walking past the press in Sun Valley. Asked last week by a CNN reporter about the future of his company, Apple CEO Tim Cook replied, “I love CNN.”

In other words, if you don’t have anything truthful to say, don’t say anything at all.

This is not about the press, which can ask whatever questions it wants but doesn’t always deserve answers. It’s about investors. Bewkes risks eroding his credibility with those who might choose to put their money into Time Warner, which is suddenly 15% more valuable now that the truth has come out. Shareholders were hurt.

Every statement Bewkes makes now about potential acquisitions may be viewed with skepticism, and that’s not going to inspire confidence in Time Warner’s leadership at a critical moment for the company.

If Bewkes had that moment in Sun Valley to do over again, perhaps he could have done himself and investors a favor by simply declining to comment.