More on Madoff and the Journal

Jason Linkins of The Huffington Post runs through the email correspondence between Madoff’s would-be slayer Harry Markopolos and WSJ reporter John R. Wilke—correspondence that stretched over three years and led nowhere. Here’s a notable email he pulls out:

By February 2007, Markopolos is sounding a downcast note: “The Wall Street Journal’s John Wilke has been a huge disappointment. Obviously they were the wrong choice. Eventually Bernie will blow up and everybody will say, ‘I told you so.’”

I think Linkins goes too far with the hyperbole here:

The Journal had this story in its pocket and could have ruled the street with it, but they passed? Why? Who knows. Maybe they thought that inaction would turn a corrupt Ponzi scheme into a good investment

Had the Journal really thought this was a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, and one they could prove, they would have been all over it.

Gary Weiss of Portfolio gets it about right. Riffing off Linkins’s piece, Weiss concludes that after all the rigamarole Markopolos went through, this is the likeliest explanation for why the Journal blinked at the softball over and over again:

Since the Journal is unlikely to ever explain itself, I’ll try to offer my guess as to what why a top investigative reporter and his editors dropped the ball so terribly:

They didn’t believe Markopolos.

It’s that simple. I can’t think of any other possible explanation, and I don’t think that any other one has any chance of being credible

That sounds right to me. We all know who Markopolos is now. But who knew him then? Trust me, Journal reporters get a lot of cranks weaving elaborate conspiracy theories and trying to convince the WSJ to print them.

As I wrote yesterday, sorting the chaff from the wheat is part of the challenge of the job, and it’s a critical one, but one whose difficulty shouldn’t be underestimated with the benefit of hindsight.

According to Time, Markopolos testified that the Journal never even heard Markopolos out, supporting Weiss’s theory that it suspected he was a crank.

“It is a sickening thought,” but if the SEC or the Wall Street Journal “would have picked up the phone and spent one hour contacting the leads” provided, Markopolos said, Madoff would have been stopped in 2006, and “untold billions” would have been saved.

But I noted in my post yesterday there were some minor discrepancies in Markopolos’s prepared testimony and his live testimony about the WSJ.

Still, the Journal just missed it on this one. There are no two ways about it.

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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.