OLD Media Moves

The ties that connect Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Luce and the Times’ Gardiner Harris

September 12, 2012

Posted by DeanRotbart

The bride, according to news reports, wore an ivory antique-lace blouse and a blue and ivory silk brocade skirt belonging to her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Roberts Clark.

The groom, a seventh-generation Kentuckian, was an award-winning journalist and editor – a protégé of Henry Luce – the founder of Time, Fortune and Life magazines.

Both bride and groom had been married previously, and among those participating in the service conducted in the bride’s Manhattan home were the groom’s three children, Anne, Crane and Gardiner.

At the time, in March 1979, Gardiner was 15 years old.  He was raised on his dad’s Todd County (Ky.) farm, where he learned to cut and hang tobacco.

It’s hard to imagine what must have been careening through Gardiner’s head on that festive Saturday in the Big Apple – only slightly more than two years since his mother, Sheila Hawkins Harris, died of cancer at age 50.

What a whirlwind experience it must have been to leap from the fields of a Kentucky tobacco farm to the upper echelons of Manhattan society, all while coping with the loss of his mother and the creation of a new, merged family identity.

Gardiner’s new step-mom, Ann R. Roberts, went by and still uses her grandmother’s maiden name.  Ann’s mother, was Mary Clark (Roberts) Rockefeller, wife of Nelson A. Rockefeller, former vice president of the United States and governor of New York State.  Ann’s politician father was a grandson of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Co. and progenitor of one of the world’s great family fortunes – worth nearly $200 billion in 2012 dollars.

At the time that Gardiner’s father, T. George Harris, married into the Rockefeller clan, Gardiner’s new step-mom was president of the Rockefeller Family Fund. (Nelson had died only two months earlier.)

Interesting family ties?  No doubt.

But is this background on Gardiner Harris, now 48, and the recently named India correspondent for The New York Times, anyone’s business – especially his readers and story subjects?

For the more than a dozen years that Gardiner covered science, medicine and food for the Times – and prior to that The Wall Street Journal – did anyone of the folks he contacted professionally or those who read his probes of the pharmaceutical industry and public health have a need to know about these aspects of his personal life?

Is their a right to personal privacy on the part of influential journalists, whose job it is – in part – to explore similar possible influences on the lives and actions of public figures, especially those in positions of prominence, such as the CEOs of major corporations and elected officials?

I have found no mention of Gardiner’s family circumstances in his official Times biographies over the years or in promotional materials for his first novel, Hazard, published in 2010.

A 2008 Times “Ask a Reporter” official bio does note that Gardiner was captain of the swimming team at private Trinity (High) School in Manhattan and that he sang in the choir and was active in theater.

Neither Gardiner nor the Times apparently deemed it any of the public’s business that through his father’s marriage, Gardiner’s family circle included some of the largest shareholders in Exxon Mobil Corp., and the owners of a 3,500 acre estate in Westchester, N.Y., on the Hudson River, that includes a 50-room mansion, a private golf course, six swimming pools and 80 miles of trails and carriage roads.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Gardiner’s step-mom – representing the Rockefeller families’ interests – attended and spoke at the May 2009 annual meeting of Exxon Mobil.

In thinking about his mother’s passing when Gardiner was only 13 years old, one might wonder if all the health officials and pharmaceutical executives that Gardiner interviewed prior to his reassignment to India had a clue about who – if anyone – Gardiner blamed for his mother’s death?  Did Gardiner harbor resentment toward the medical establishment? And, even if he did, did it impact his reporting?

Would any different business-health reporter, say one whose middle-class parents are both still living and well, have reported any differently had they – not Gardiner – been assigned to cover the stories he was assigned to chronicle?  If the sources he interviewed had known his family history, would they have treated him any differently?  More openly perhaps?  Less openly?

Who can say?

It feels like being a quasi-Rockefeller would make some difference in how a journalist views everyday topics, such as executive compensation and environmental and health regulation.  Ditto, having such a harsh exposure to the medical establishment at such an impressionable age might color one’s thinking when covering that same establishment as an investigative reporter.

But I’m not a psychiatrist.  I don’t know if such a distinctive background would make Gardiner (or anyone else) more likely to be sympathetic on certain issues or more naturally antagonistic.

In the end, I simply sense that if I were briefing a Fortune 500 CEO who is about to sit for a long interview with Gardner, I would feel I am doing my job more thoroughly if I mention his family history ahead of briefing the CEO on Gardiner’s role on the Trinity swim team.

Speaking of thoroughly briefing a Fortune 500 CEO.  In my next column, I’ll give you a head’s up on why you might remind your executives to avoid disparaging the global-warming crowd on your company’s next high-level visit to Bloomberg News.

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