For all that, Sorkin’s account gives the impression that egomania and personality clashes were rarely, if ever, decisive in the end; if deals crashed, it was because the numbers were what they were. In one good scene, a Chase banker named Tim Main embarrasses his boss, Jamie Dimon, during a sales call by telling a roomful of AIG executives that it is important for clients to “recognize their own problems and shortcomings.” On Wall Street, this is considered a major faux pas. Main was taken off the deal. AIG failed anyway.

There wasn’t much anybody could do at this point. Of course, that’s the problem with this book.




At first glance, TBTF is a simply the latest book to gain entrée to the executive suites where important decisions are made and recreate key scenes in a novelistic fashion. It has drawn comparisons to classics such as Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s Barbarians at the Gate (1990), but such comparisons are unfair to all sides. Indeed, rereading Barbarians, which is richer by an order of magnitude, shows just how much power relations have shifted between journalists and Wall Street. Back then, access brought a lot more.

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.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.