Gary Weiss is all over a bit of news this morning that Harry Markopolos, the Madoff whistleblower tried to get The Wall Street Journal to cover the story more than three years ago, to no avail.
Here’s Weiss, a contributing editor at Portfolio:
It seems that the Journal missed an opportunity to achieve one of the biggest scoops in financial history, win a Pulitzer Prize and all that other good stuff—and extinguish the biggest fraud in financial history.
As Weiss reports, Markopolos said this in his prepared testimony before Congress:
[Pat Burns, communications director at Taxpayers Against Fraud] put me in contact with John Wilke, senior investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau. Mr. Wilke and I would become friends over the next three years. Unfortunately, as eager as Mr. Wilke was to investigate the Madoff story, it appears that the Wall Street Journal’s editors never gave him approval to start investigating. As you will see from my extensive e-mail correspondence with him over the next several months, there were several points in time in which he was getting ready to book air travel to start the story and then would get called off at the last minute. I never determined if the senior editors at the Wall Street Journal failed to authorize this investigation.
Markopolos, via Weiss, also said this, in live testimony to Congress today:
“I believe that senior editors of the Journal respected and feared Mr. Madoff” and wouldn’t let him “get on the plane” and meet with him on the fraud.
Now, it’s certainly regrettable that the WSJ had an opportunity to blow up this fraud and didn’t take it, especially since this tip seems to have come well-packaged and from a credible (albeit then unknown) source.
On the other hand, reporters get tips all the time and can’t follow them all. Reporters must juggle competing priorities on long-term projects: time involved; likelihood of nailing the story down to where it will pass lawyering; credibility of the source—all these moving parts have to be balanced, and it’s a very hard thing to do. Wilke is a good reporter and broke some great stories in the time he was talking to Markopolos. That’s not to excuse missing the story, but it does explain why it’s not as simple as it may seem.
But journalism is, after all, about resource commitment and deciding between competing priorities. If Markopolos is right that Wilke was hot to do the story but top editors shot him down, then the circumstances surrounding that decision are worth exploring. This isn’t about finger-pointing, but about all of us learning the chief journalistic lesson that the events of recent months have taught us: business-news organizations must bolster their investigative capacity and must recommit themselves to their investigative mission (Updated on 2/5 to fix copy).
Wilke didn’t respond to a request for comment. A Dow Jones spokesman declined comment on Markopolos’s testimony but called “absurd” the idea that senior editors laid off the story because they “respected and feared Madoff.”
We agree, especially since Markopolos’s own prepared testimony said “I never determined if the senior editors at the Wall Street Journal failed to authorize this investigation,” but note that the question of a news organization’s commitment to investigative reporting is a separate matter.
Let’s see how it unfolds.
I would note also that the Journal’s cousin Barron’s was one of the only news outlets to write skeptically about Madoff, way back in 2001.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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.