Sorkin’s book is something different. It was written in a hurry and in quasi-real time. Its reliance on gaining access to key players is nearly total, and those big shots are much more media-savvy than their predecessors. This throws the limits of the form into high relief.
All this is important because there’s a great battle going on right now over the narrative of the financial crisis—its causes, its costs, its meaning, and its implications. More than one reviewer has called TBTF the defining book of the financial crisis, but that cannot be true. The book itself makes no such claims. And common sense tells us that an account of the last few months before the crash as seen by elites (even two hundred of them) can’t hope to encompass a crisis of this scope. This perspective would naturally generate a narrative about these elites’ heroic efforts to save the system, not one about why the system needed saving in the first place.
Meanwhile, there’s also a mini-struggle going on within business journalism itself over how best to cover the crisis. Sorkin’s book helps draw a bright line between deal journalism and the work of accountability-oriented reporters. In the former, the reporter-source relationship is more transactional, with a focus on securing insider access; the latter maintain greater distance from their subjects and rely for their material on financial filings, lawsuits, whistleblowers, short sellers, nonprofit groups, and dissidents of all stripes—not insiders, but outsiders. As it happens, their sources were right about this crisis, while Sorkin’s insiders were part of the problem.
In a sharp profile of the author in New York magazine last November, Gabriel Sherman recounts a dispute between Sorkin and two Times colleagues, Don Van Natta Jr. and Gretchen Morgenson. The two investigative reporters suggested that Sorkin’s book had “piggybacked” on critical information they had obtained about a secret ethics waiver that allowed Henry Paulson to negotiate with his old firm, Goldman. The dispute isn’t important in itself. Yet it vividly juxtaposes Sorkin, whose stock-in-trade is gaining the trust of the powerful, with two reporters who adopt a more confrontational approach.
Bill Keller, the Times’s executive editor, defended his young star by papering over the differences between the two reporting strategies. At heart, Keller wrote in an e-mail to Sherman, Sorkin is “a classic beat reporter.” From Keller’s point of view, apparently, this is an acceptable bit of newsroom diplomacy. But readers, at least those eager to understand exactly what they’re reading, don’t benefit from this blurring of distinctions.
Of course, there is more than one approach to business reporting. Take, for example, Bloomberg’s Mark Pittman, a noted investigator who wrote muckraking exposés about Goldman’s issuance of defective CDOs and the like. Pittman, who died unexpectedly last November, was known in some circles as “the man who sued the Fed,” the reporter behind a Bloomberg LP suit to pry loose details about the central bank’s trillion-dollar emergency lending programs.
While Pittman’s adversarial style paid major dividends, it should be obvious that his approach would not gain him the kind of telepathic rapport that Sorkin seems to have developed with the Fed chairman (“. . . the towering white peaks of the Tetons offered a majestic view, but one that no longer took Ben Bernanke’s breath away the way it once had.”)
Readers should be aware of the differences in reporting styles and understand them for what they are: a division of labor. Neither will give you the full picture; one aims to tell you what the players said, while the other tells you what they did.
But even with that caveat, TBTF does show some of the downside of relying so heavily on Wall Street insiders. For one thing, in six hundred pages, there’s surprisingly little news here. As noted, there is a torrent of previously unreported facts—but most of them amount to historical footnotes, not major revelations that alter our fundamental understanding of events. One notable exception: Sorkin demonstrates that Goldman executives’ bluster about the firm’s viability was just that—bluster. They were terrified. On most of the big questions, Sorkin’s details tend to support official versions of events (which is not necessarily a bad thing). The revisionist charge that the decision to let Lehman fail was made in bad faith is contradicted by the book’s depiction of Paulson (a “straight-shooting Midwesterner”) as selflessly and tirelessly trying to do the right thing, despite ankle-biting from the press and Congress. Likewise, Sorkin helps to debunk the theory that Goldman engineered the aig bailout with a scene that shows Geithner himself floating the idea.