Journalism Makes Them Uncomfortable

A mutant strain of journalism criticism the other day wanted to know who leaked the story about Jimmy Cayne being pushed from his job as chief executive of Bear Stearns & Co., the big Wall Street firm.

It appears as if the Financial Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are dead certain that long-time Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne is retiring (read: getting canned) and president Alan Schwartz will take the helm, possibly as early as Tuesday. However, it’s worth asking, who leaked the story and why?

Was it a director? The incoming CEO? Or maybe a big shareholder?

Plumbing for sources is usually not a useful journalistic exercise and is even less so in this case, in which the leak wasn’t Machiavellian maneuvering meant to provoke Cayne’s dismissal. The leak clearly came after the decision already had been made, and the official announcement came only a few hours later.

But the real question is this: What problem is the author trying to solve with this post? That all three papers reported accurate information before it was officially announced?

News was supposed to be a good thing, remember?

And yet there is a strain of journalism criticism that seems hostile to journalism itself. This school of thought pushes not for journalists to do more or to do better, but to do less.

Jack Flack, a blogger for Portfolio, still regrets The Wall Street Journal’s extraordinarily detailed and brilliant reconstruction of a period last summer that found Cayne smoked marijuana, golfed, played bridge and generally partied while Bear-affiliated hedge funds were collapsing.

Flack had argued that the story contained too much information, and the play was too big.

But it’s just unsettling to see the world’s preeminent business newspaper give such prominent and extensive focus to the weighty accusations that Cayne is obsessed with bridge, might enjoy occasional weed and chides youngsters for weak handshakes. Also, he doesn’t carry a cell phone, obey no-smoking ordinances or talk shop on the golf course. In other words, he acts like a 73-year-old rich guy who owns a big chunk of the joint he runs.

But as we argued, great journalism is built on detail—fact piled upon hard-to-establish fact and marshaled in service of a broader purpose. In this case, that purpose is to provide a window onto the character, such as it is, of one of Wall Street’s leaders.

Fortunately for Flack and unfortunately for Wall Street Journal readers, they will be seeing less not more of the Cayne-style blockbusters under the paper’s new owner News Corp. This I can guarantee.

This phenomenon, of course, isn’t limited to the Cayne story. Over the summer, Jon Friedman and others made a similar argument against Portfolio’s superb story that finally established something that all of baseball had been tiptoeing around for years: George Steinbrenner’s health had failed to the point that he was incapable of running the league’s most important franchise. Previous sports reporting on the Yankees owner had read like what Pravda must have written during Brezhnev’s final months.

Friedman argued Steinbrenner’s privacy was invaded, but that’s not so. The reporter drove up with one of Steinbrenner’s old pals and rang the doorbell.

Now wants to find out who shot Cayne. Why?

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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.