If business journalism can be said to have structural problems—and I think it does—the biggest one, in my view, its Achilles heel, would be the access problem.
It’s hard to write about business without access to sources, and it is considered better to have sources at the very top. People at the top of corporations are hard to reach, and they typically don’t have to talk to reporters unless they want to. They’re protected by a phalanx of public relations specialists, who are not dummies and know when they have leverage. It is therefore much easier to write a story that is largely complimentary—or at least within some unspoken bounds of acceptable discourse—than one that is largely the opposite.
This is why the covers of business magazines look the way they do.
So there is a tension: arms-length scrutiny versus the need for access. That’s journalism for you. What can you do? I’m not saying this tension is a bad thing, just that these are the conditions under which reporters and editors operate.
Now, I can’t prove it, but it’s my sense that the public-relations operatives have become more empowered in recent years, as business-news organizations have shriveled financially and competition for business news has, paradoxically, increased.
Productivity demands on reporters have increased—that hamster wheel is spinning like mad—leaving less time and appetite in newsrooms for sticky, time-consuming confrontation. Meanwhile, experience levels in newsroom have dropped, and investigations are left in the hands of a shrinking elite.
One suspects, further, that news cultures have been affected. The tradeoff between access and arms-length scrutiny—that never-easy balancing act—has gotten out of whack. News organizations are conceding more to sources and getting less, in some cases, much less.
Which brings us to The New York Times’s recent offering on Sallie Krawcheck, a story that seem to cross a clear bright line. It allows Krawcheck’s view of her experience at Citi to be presented in detail while she herself takes no responsibility for those views. She is not even asked for comment. Instead she hovers behind this story like some kind of weird specter, speaking to and through “friends,” who themselves are nameless.
The result is some kind of business-press prose-poem, a masterpiece of insiderism, that treats readers as if they were morons and unfortunately opens the Times up to ridicule, which I will now endeavor to apply.
Krawcheck, for casual business-press readers, was a top Citigroup executive, who after a rapid rise was forced out last September at the age of 43. Her career was notable because she had been one of the most powerful women on Wall Street at the time. Her exit was notable for the same reason. And while her rise seemed to have outstripped any visible accomplishments, that’s not really that unusual, is it?
The Times story adds the information to the public record that Krawcheck’s ouster was not the result of gender discrimination as some had feared, but instead of “an old-fashioned corporate bar brawl at a bank already notorious for dysfunctional management.”
Fair enough. To the extent that anyone thought that discrimination played a role—and I don’t think many people really did—this is useful.
But to get that—and it’s sort of non-news, when you think about it —readers are treated a festival of anonymous attribution that reaches Onion-esque proportions. There are so many people “close to” and “familiar with” it must be read to be believed; I add emphasis for comic effect:
What infuriated Ms. Krawcheck was that the bank moved up its announcement without telling her, according to a person with direct knowledge of her thinking who, like top Citigroup officials, would not agree to be quoted by name.
Hmm. Whom might that be, one wonders? Who in the world would have a “direct” pipeline into Sallie Krawcheck’s brain?
This person requested anonymity in order to preserve professional relationships with Citigroup.