Audit Notes: Times Nicked; Defining Populism; Special Dividends; Intrepid Blogger, etc.

NYTPicker, an anonymous site devoting to giving the Times a hard time, has an interesting item that says the paper overlooked a felony conviction in a lengthy profile Saturday about a small-business lender.

Making sure subjects are properly vetted is a real concern, obviously, especially in stories these days about lenders. And there’s no question whatever of the relevance of the conviction—for breaking into a former employer’s computer and deleting information—to the Times piece. For one thing, it lends irony to this passage:

Mr. Eitelberg says he learned the hard way about the importance of background checks for his customers.

The Times hasn’t responded to NYTPicker.

—I’m grateful for this history-laced op-ed in Saturday’s Journal looking at what is and isn’t populism. That’s a word that’s been flung around to a fair-thee-well lately. I griped during the presidential campaign that it was being mistakenly applied to policies that were just plain old liberal—not the same thing.

What I think is missing in this latest piece—which identifies media stars as heirs to a strain of populist tradition—is the debtor/creditor divide that fueled both upper and lower-case populism. That divide would be a helpful frame for viewing today’s political and economic climate.

—Here’s a story I wish were longer—about HCA Inc. paying its private equity owners a $1.75 billion special dividend. The Journal writes:

Nevertheless, HCA’s large dividend payment brings to mind the financial maneuvers made by private-equity firms during the go-go years. Buyout shops made a chunk of their profits through these “dividend recapitalizations,” taking big cash payments out of companies they owned by paying themselves a dividend. These payments totaled $56 billion in 2006 and 2007 combined, according to Standard & Poor’s.

Good stuff. But how HCA was able to do that is collapsed into a pretty small space in this 356-word story. That’s here:

By improving HCA’s performance and cash flow, the owners have paid down its debt.

HCA is a hospital operator. I would love to see a followup unpacking that sentence.

—Here’s something that merits a combat medal, or at least a large pack of NoDoze:

“Blogging The Asset Securitization Forum”

All I can say is, God speed, Daniel Indiviglio! Hey, as a use of journalism resources, it beats blogging the Grammys, as both the Times and the Journal insist on doing. That, I don’t get.

—Everyone by now should have read the Volcker op-ed in yesterday’s Times on what he thinks financial reform should look like. If you haven’t, several points will be deducted from your score.

—And if you’re curious about how the political debate on financial-regulatory reform is going to go, check out HuffPo’s report on what Republican guru Frank Luntz is planning. Nine months ago, HuffPo reminds us, Luntz “penned a memo laying out the arguments for health care legislation’s destruction….” All righty, then.

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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.