Jack Flack, a pseudonymous blogger on the business press, for Conde Nast Portfolio’s Web site, and a competitor of mine, finds in the story an “unsettling” harbinger of what the Journal will become after News Corp. completes the purchase of the newspaper’s publisher, Dow Jones & Co.

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.

He also implies, I think, that Barney Kilgore, the post-war creator of the modern Journal, would strongly disapprove of the Kelly story.

The value of the Kelly story isn’t just that it catches a Wall Street CEO using illegal drugs—although that reporting feat is hard enough to pull off, would stand alone as a story, and is also something, believe me, Portfolio’s editor in chief, Joanne Lipman, would cut off a limb to publish.

Kilgore, by the way, devoted his career to making such stories possible I never met the man, but judging by his creation, particularly in the seventies and eighties, the man would have loved that story. Murdoch, on the hand, has made a life’s work of killing investigative stories, books, and even entire news networks that might interfere with some corporate interest, such as, for instance, angering the executive of a potential lender, like Bear Stearns. So, not to worry; if he can, Murdoch will surely protect readers from so public an undressing of a fellow titan.

No, the value of Kelly story is in the details themselves. Great journalism so often boils down to that, doesn’t it? Either the reporter gets the detail or she doesn’t. In this case, it is the detail that peels away the carefully and expensively cultivated PR image to reveal the banality beneath.

Cayne smokes cigars that cost $140 each, and he keeps them not on his desk, but under it.

At a July 12 meeting, Cayne seemed to those in attendance to care less about markets than, Kelly says, “in talking about a breakfast-cereal allergy,” and, of course, those cigars.

The seventeen-minute chopper ride to his country club costs $1,700.

Etc.

These images offer a reality check on how far performance, competency, and even behavioral standards among the leadership class have been allowed to slip during the Bush era.

In the Gilded Age, Sherry’s Restaurant hosted formal horseback dinners for the New York Riding Club, while violent strikes and riots wracked the nation and an economist noted “a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution.”

And who remembers this detail about Leona “We don’t pay taxes; the little people pay taxes” Helmsley, convicted of tax fraud at the end of the great bank bust not so very long ago?

She would have servants kneel at poolside with a platter of freshly cooked shrimp, rewarding her with one each time she completed a lap. (2)

I do.

Details like those dug out by Kelly capture clues to the character of a man, but also to the essence of an age, and, with any luck, signal its end.

Congrats, Kate. Somewhere, Kilgore is smiling.

1. Elinore Longobardi and Anna Bahney are
Audit Fellows.

2. “Abuzz About the Hotel Queen; Ex-Employee’s Stinging Testimony in the Trial of Leona Helmsley,”
The Washington Post
18 July 1989

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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.