A Sin of Omission, Part Two

New York Times reporter Edmund Andrews responded to criticism of his book, and the issue made it to the paper’s Week in Review section in the form of ombudsman Clark Hoyt column. Both responses fall short.

Andrews, remember, is the Times reporter whose new book on getting swept up in the housing bubble the Times Magazine excerpted recently, but who The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle found out last week had neglected to mention critical information about his wife’s financial history.

Andrews told PBS that he didn’t mention his wife’s two bankruptcies because “they had nothing to do with our mortgage woes” and:

Since Patty had been so brave in letting me tell our own story so candidly, I wanted to spare her the public exposure on these older woes.

Andrews says his wife’s first bankruptcy, in 1998, was her husband’s fault for not paying his taxes, a fact the ex-husband withheld from his wife.

The second bankruptcy came when her sister sued her for failing to repay a loan. Andrews argues these somehow have little to do with his story of their, you know, not being able to repay a loan.

McArdle demolishes Andrews’ excuses in a follow-up post. As she notes, Andrews glosses over the fact that the 1998 bankruptcy wiped out more than $65,000 in debt, most of it on credit cards:

Patty Barreiro’s first bankuptcy does not merely clear past tax debts—indeed, it’s really very difficult to shed past tax debts in bankruptcy. They also discharged $47,655.37 in credit card debt, $4701.10 in past medical bills, $14,303 in tuition to Campbell Hall, a Los Angeles private school, and a few other miscellaneous bills. I don’t have time right now to look up what the disposition of their debts to the IRS for the 1996-98 tax years was, but I suspect they ended up paying the $70,000 they owed. Frankly, given what Edmund Andrews’ says, I’m surprised they got any of their tax debt discharged: as I understand it, it’s nearly impossible to discharge tax debts due to fraud.

And as for filing bankruptcy to avoid paying off her own sister, Andrews elides the fact that he bought their half-million-dollar house in 2004, but his wife didn’t declare the second bankruptcy until 2007. For a couple of those years she was making $60,000 a year, according to Andrews. Presumably had they not bought the house, she would have been able to pay off a decent chunk of the loan from her sister. And if she had paid on the loan, it would have left even less money for the mortgage payment.

So how is that irrelevant to the story?

And unfortunately, with his defensive response, Andrews is digging himself a deeper hole—with another omission. McArdle points out that Andrews didn’t mention that the bankruptcy only made up about half of the total debt wiped out:

Patty Barreiro’s second bankruptcy does not merely clear a lawsuit. The value of the settlement was $29,000. The total vale of the unsecured claims discharged was $55,313, including almost $8,000 for legal services, almost $10,000 in medical bills, $1200 in phone bills, $1100 owed to Comcast, and $5400 in credit card debt.

Clark Hoyt, the NYT public editor gets much of this wrong. He focuses mostly on whether there’s a conflict of interest in Andrews covering the economy while going through this experience.

That’s silly. We need more people covering the economy and finance that are going through these kinds of things. One of the great problems with financial journalism at the top is that it’s pretty much a monoculture with few ties to the working class or the poor (but many more ties to the very wealthy).

Hoyt mostly agrees, but says Andrews shouldn’t have been put on a story about Obama’s mortgage-rescue plan.

There are plenty of them to cover without assigning him to those that could directly affect whether he keeps his own house. He is too close to that story.

I just disagree. With that logic, Hoyt would have only Canadian reporters cover tax policy in the U.S., since they won’t be affected by whether Congress raises or cuts them—something that directly affects American reporters’ paychecks.

But Hoyt focuses on a phony conflict issue and relegates the real issue to one paragraph:

On Thursday, he came under attack from a blogger for The Atlantic for not mentioning in his book that his wife had twice filed for bankruptcy — the second time while they were married, though Andrews said it involved an old loan from a family member. He said he had wanted to spare his wife any more embarrassment. The blogger said the omission undercut Andrews’s story, but I think it was clear that he and his wife could not manage their finances, bankruptcies or no. Still, he should have revealed the second one, if only to head off the criticism.

Look, Andrews and Clark are both right that there’s plenty of information available for readers to know that Andrews and his wife couldn’t manage their money. This lapse is no high crime.

But that doesn’t excuse it. The bankruptcies are simply part of the story, and there’s no way around that. It’s not even a close call.

Just say so.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.