Moral Force

Why Mark Pittman matters

The first time I ever talked to Pittman was for an Audit Interview back in February. We do these Q&A’s every once in a while to highlight journalists whose stuff we like.

We hit it off when we found out we were from the same neck of the woods. He was raised working class in Kansas City, Kansas and had gone to the University of Kansas. I was raised working class in Tulsa and had gone to the University of Oklahoma. There aren’t too many of us from those backgrounds in the big financial media. We quickly found out that my late grandfather Arva, a county clerk in the ’70s and ’80s, had been a good source of Pittman’s in his first job at the Coffeyville (Kansas) Journal.

So Pittman looked me up when he came to Washington three weeks later and I took him to the National Press Club bar, which he thought was awesome—as any real reporter would. We had a few scotches and a good time messing with a local conspiracy nut who frequents the bar.

It’s easy to get ground down in journalism. You get nicked here and there by the bad bosses, the bureaucrats, the daily grind of deadlines, the layoffs or threat of them, until it’s easy to lose the hunger that brought you into the business as a young reporter. Lots of folks flame out about the time they get their first mortgage.

I doubt Mark ever felt any of this. He had fire; he had guts. He was six foot four and self-assured. Not smug—fearless.

He reminded me why I wanted to be a journalist in the first place. He had boundless enthusiasm for smash-mouth reporting. He wanted to find out what was wrong and to name names—and he went after the biggest stories and the most powerful institutions. Goldman Sachs? Why not? The Fed? Who the hell else?.

The skim-the-surface, split-the-difference caution that too often muddles journalists’ work was not Pittman’s way. He wanted his work to have “moral force,” as he once told me. And it did. There was no thin line between wrong and right with him.

Pittman had a Midwestern union-worker’s son’s I-ain’t-impressed attitude toward Wall Street and its airs of intellectual superiority. He looked outside the group of the typical sources for a Wall Street reporter. He talked to Joseph Stiglitz and Elizabeth Warren. He talked to dissidents like Alan Grayson and Brad Miller in Congress and others throughout the government’s new nexus with finance. He talked to the sometimes-out-there Zero Hedge. He went well beyond his beat’s bubble. That’s one reason he got stories that broke vital information and changed the public conversation.

If there is an Audit Ideal of a reporter, Pittman was it. As Dean wrote earlier today:

… after listening to him you couldn’t help but come away with the sense that this was someone who had peered into the Crisis of 2007-2008 and seen it in all its vastness, its all-encompassing awesomeness, the profound badness that had led to it, and the depth and breadth of its reach, from the canyons of Wall Street around the world and back again to the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant. He just couldn’t believe what he had seen.

And here’s how a former colleague, Paul Conley, eulogized Pittman:

He was a bigger-than-life, over-the-top, lovable stereotype of the perfect reporter. He drank. He smoked. He worked too hard (he went weeks and weeks limping around the office in a makeshift bandage and untied sneaker rather than take time to visit the doctor after injuring his foot.) He was also both an inspiring iconoclast and a genuinely kind man in a culture that seemed to disdain both individualism and sweetness.

He was also, ultimately, a guy who loved this game.

He lived for the story. He believed — in a way that’s all too rare… that his role was to bring difficult truths into the light.

What is a reporter for, anyway? To record what-he-said and what-she-said (or more likely, what that other he said)? Pittman didn’t have any patience for that. He wanted to find out what they did, and he very often reported around the sources to get to the heart of a story.

I went out for drinks or dinner with Mark several times over the all-too-brief nine months I knew him. On one of those visits this summer he told me he’d had a stent put in a few days before and was having to give up smoking. He, characteristically, took that setback manfully and kept working hard.

When do you become friends with someone? You just realize at some point that it’s happened. The last Pittman piece I wrote about was a profile he and Bob Ivry (whom a week later would be writing Pittman’s obituary) wrote about Elizabeth Warren. I thought about writing an aside disclosing that Pittman had become a friend of mine. It just slipped my mind as I got into writing the post.

So I’ll do it here: Mark Pittman was a friend of mine.

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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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.