Mark H. Jackson’s Second Client Is the First Amendment
His first is Dow Jones
Published in Business Edition Super Lawyers 2010 magazine
on August 27, 2010
Updated on January 3, 2020
In his senior year of high school, when Mark H. Jackson was editor of the Cougar Crier, the student newspaper at John F. Kennedy High School in Long Island, his staff reported a story that the school administration didn’t like. Jackson can’t remember what the story was about, but he does remember being called to the principal’s office. He was told that the story had to be killed.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Tanenbaum,” he told the principal. The newspaper was already circulating throughout the school.
Today, Jackson grins at the memory. In truth, he says, “I wasn’t sorry in the least.”
Jackson, 50, is a corporate attorney who thinks of himself as a First Amendment lawyer. He has made a career of helping reporters get their stories in print, from that first victory over censorship in high school to his current job as executive vice president and general counsel for Dow Jones, the arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. that includes The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires and a range of other business news outlets, including websites, local newspapers, newsletters, databases, and magazines.
Some journalists stereotype their corporate lawyers as overly cautious naysayers. “Mark is not one of those guys,” says Robert Thomson, editor-in-chief of Dow Jones & Co. and managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. “Mark is absolutely passionate about the role of the press, press freedom and freedom of information.”
Jackson has his father to thank. Paul Jackson was a journalist who founded the local newspaper, The Bellmore Chronicle, and is best known for his work on The Long Island Independent. He often told his four kids—Mark was second—about his battles for the public’s right to know about school board and sewer committee meetings. Jackson vividly remembers hearing the oft-told story of how city officials had tried to close a city council meeting his father was covering. His father stood up and objected that closing the meeting was a violation of state law and the First Amendment, refusing to leave until he was escorted out. His four children were proud of their dad, who went on to work for Esquire and the New York Post.
The family came to assume that Mark, known for holding his own on the high school debate team and during the family’s spirited dinner-table conversations, would make a difference someday either as a journalist or a lawyer. “I chose the law,” Jackson says.
At Cornell University in the late ’70s, he was a campus activist, leading student campaigns for various causes, especially gun control. After several incidents of racial strife on campus, he drafted a letter condemning discrimination, persuaded much of the faculty to sign it, and got the editors of The Cornell Daily Sun to run it.
He went on to law school at Cornell, made the Cornell International Law Journal and signed up for Legal Aid. His Legal Aid supervisor during his second year of law school was a third-year student, Karen Hagberg. They got married in 1986, one year after he graduated.
Soon after, Hagberg became an associate at a Manhattan firm, Morrison & Foerster, so Jackson looked for a job with a New York firm that represented newspapers. He ended up at Squadron Ellenoff Plesent & Lehrer, which was later taken over by the Washington, D.C.-based firm Hogan & Hartson. Squadron Ellenoff represented a number of media outlets, including the New York Post, that were owned by the law firm’s longtime client Rupert Murdoch.
Jackson was soon winning court cases for the Post, including a libel suit filed by Louis Farrakhan, and reviewing stories before publication. More than one family gathering was interrupted by an editor calling and asking, “Can you read this? We want to run it tomorrow morning.”
“There’s a thrill to it. It’s exciting. It’s pressure. And it’s full of journalism,” Jackson says. “It’s obviously the place in which law and journalism intersect the most. Your goal is similar to the journalists’. They’re coming to you with a story that they desperately want to get in the paper.” A big part of his team of press lawyers’ jobs, he says, is to advise editors and reporters as they shape their stories—what to leave out, what language to soften, how to phrase something so it is accurate but not defamatory. “You are figuring out how to get it into the paper, how to help them get it into the paper with the least legal risk,” he continues. “It’s fascinating.”
One day, after he had been a partner at Squadron Ellenoff for several years, Jackson’s wife sat him down. Morrison & Foerster wanted her to be in charge of its litigation practice in Japan. Jackson told his wife she couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and walked away from his partnership at Squadron.
In Tokyo, he became the housedad for their two young daughters, taking them to and from school every day, and to violin and softball practice. When the girls were in school, Jackson wandered the neighborhood practicing his Japanese. When the girls weren’t in school, a favorite game was “The Bus to Nowhere”—they’d hop a bus, any bus, ride it to the end of the line, look around the neighborhood, have lunch and then ride the bus back home. At the end of Hagberg’s three-year posting, the family decided that wasn’t enough. They signed on for two more years. “I spent five years with my children,” Jackson marvels today. “It was a transforming experience for all of our family.”
Hagberg, back at Morrison & Foerster’s New York office, says, “It was obviously a big risk for Mark to leave his partnership and agree to move to Tokyo for my work, not knowing what he’d do when we returned. But the move was a terrific experience for our family. And Mark took full advantage. … When people talked of his ‘sacrifice,’ he’d smile.”
Upon returning to the States, Jackson got a call from the general counsel at HarperCollins, the book publishing company owned by News Corp., to fill in for an attorney who was on maternity leave. Jackson took the job. “Yes, he was overqualified,” says Lon Jacobs, a longtime Squadron Ellenoff colleague who is now general counsel at News Corp. “But he had to deal with Judith Regan, which takes enormous skill and tact.”
Regan had been given her own imprint at HarperCollins, one of the imprints that Jackson worked for. She put out some controversial books, many of which sold well. But in 2006 she wanted to publish O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It. Amid a firestorm of criticism, HarperCollins canceled publication. Regan subsequently complained about her treatment by HarperCollins executives and other people in the industry, and detailed her complaints to Jackson in a telephone conversation. News Corp. said Jackson’s handwritten notes of the conversation indicated Regan may have made anti-Semitic references. Regan denied it, but was fired anyway. She filed a $100 million lawsuit against News Corp. in 2007, and in 2008 the suit settled.
Jackson is restrained from any comment by the settlement agreement, but offers this: “What I would say about that saga is that no good lawyer relishes being a central part of a public controversy outside what they would do in a courtroom.”
When a magazine did an anonymous-sources-tell-all on Regan, Jackson’s friends were not surprised that the comments about him were positive. Slade Metcalf, one of Jackson’s former partners at Squadron Ellenoff, and now a partner at Hogan Lovells in New York, said one of the people quoted anonymously in the story used the word “mensch” to describe Jackson. “I looked it up again in the dictionary,” says Metcalf. “It means a person of integrity and honor. That’s Mark.”
News Corp. acquired Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal in late 2007, and one of its first moves was to bring in Jackson as general counsel. Jackson supervises 22 lawyers, and oversees legal work related not only to the Journal and the Dow Jones newswires, but for the dozens of other media outlets in the Dow Jones stable, including local newspapers not all that different from the one his dad ran on Long Island. Jackson’s responsibilities include addressing the wide-ranging host of legal issues that a global publishing company would face, from mergers and acquisitions to licensing, labor to privacy, and real estate to environmental issues.
And for a handful of his lawyers, it’s not only First Amendment and libel cases: his press lawyers spend a lot of time on other work, including efforts to obtain access to public records and objections to attempts to subpoena reporters’ notes. Underlying all that his press lawyers do, Jackson insists, is an emphasis on helping reporters investigate and report matters of public concern. “It is a daily fight that is waged over and over again. It’s the day-to-day work that our lawyers do,” he says. “That is fought every single day in the newsroom, and the lawyer’s job is to help the journalists.”
New technology, of course, has led to new kinds of legal work, including getting involved as Dow Jones looks for “new products” for its news and information—and new revenue streams to help pay for newsgathering. Jackson notes that the Internet makes news and information less expensive to distribute, but both the quantity and quality of news depend on journalists being able to make a living. “I have to be concerned about the devaluing of the news [in a broad context],” he says. “It’s actually a great time to be in an organization like Dow Jones because it is a time of change and a chance to look at the model and see how it’s going to work.”
Jackson is not among those who believe the news business is dying. “Newspapers will survive,” he says. “What form they survive in remains to be seen. But there will always be a need for people to know what’s going on. And there will always be people that need to tell the stories. Hopefully, there will be a lawyer at their side to help them through it carefully.
“My second client is always the First Amendment.”