Who remembers the schadenfreude?

It was only a week ago—it feels like another era— that financial news publications rushed to put up the most comprehensive story about Wall Street’s joyful reaction to the fall of Eliot Spitzer.

“It’s Schadenfreude time on Wall Street,” the Journal wrote.

“Wall Street on Spitzer: ‘There Is a God,’” read the headline on The New York Times’s Dealbook, a Wall Street chronicler.

Portfolio posted a me-too version:

Listen carefully, and you might just hear howls of laughter rising from Wall Street as the allegations of New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s involvement in a prostitution ring sinks in.

I’m still trying to figure out the headline—“Spit-Take on Wall Street”—but I’m sure it’s very sophisticated.

Anyway, that was last week. This week, we’re taking a brief break from an emergency on Wall Street the likes of which people in the know say they have not seen in their lifetime.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, not often quoted favorably here, properly focused the markets’ attention earlier this week, using the words “panic,” “rout,” and “maximum danger” in a single sentence.

In the credit market panic that began in August, we have now reached the point of maximum danger: A global run on the dollar that could become a rout.

But with our economic futures hanging on the outcome of government rescue efforts, it’s worth looking back to the business-press’s response to the self-destruction of Wall Street’s erstwhile sheriff.

The schadenfreude story was everywhere, and rightly so. Wall Street really did feel that way. Coverage included wall-to-wall quotes and images of Kenneth Langone, Spitzer’s arch-nemesis, who gave The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and anyone with a notepad or microphone the same talking point:

I have never had any doubt about his lack of character and integrity—and he’s proven me correct.

He feels vindicated. Good for him.

Of course, this is from the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange board committee that approved a pay package for Dick Grasso that shocked the conscience of the country—$189 million, “one of the richest pay packages in the history of
American business,” The Wall Street Journal said in a May 2004 news story. This, mind you, to head a nonprofit.

That pay package, readers will remember, was one of Wall Street’s most closely guarded secrets, until an enormous Journal scoop in May 2003 cracked it open, riveting the country’s attention on executive compensation practices in public companies across the spectrum. Why was the amount of his compensation guarded like some nuclear targeting code? Because it was a disgrace, of course.

Last week, Grasso’s neighbors came out of the woodwork, as in the Journal story:

Andrew Sabin, a friend of Mr. Grasso’s who lives near him on Long Island, said he spoke briefly with Mr. Grasso’s wife, Lori. “I said I’d buy Dick some champagne,” said Mr. Sabin, owner of precious-metals firm Sabin Commodities. “I’m sure he’s happy. I’m sure everybody on Wall Street is happy.”

Match the word of this obscure Long Island commodities broker against that of John Bogle quoted here in a very good Journal story that ran inside last week and provided some welcome balance:

Mr. Spitzer “had an enormously positive impact on the securities industry,” said John C. Bogle, founder of mutual-fund firm Vanguard Group and a frequent critic of Wall Street practices.

Bogle is much more than a critic, by the way; he’s financial-services industry giant.

Grasso himself didn’t comment, but couldn’t quite keep his mouth shut, either, producing this attribution gem:

Mr. Grasso couldn’t be reached for comment, but a person familiar with his thinking said Monday that Mr. Grasso felt bad for Mr. Spitzer’s family.

Actually, the person was not so much familiar with Mr. Grasso’s thinking as his feelings, which is even more impressive.

The point is, though: Grasso has a big heart. The man’s a goddamn saint.

And then there are these yarns of Spitzer’s supposedly hideous abuses of power, which never seem to amount to much. Here’s the Journal’s account:

Critics said he bullied opponents, threatening to publicly reveal embarrassing details of a company’s business or an executive’s conduct to force management changes or headline-grabbing fines. In the case against Mr. Grasso, lawyers working for Mr. Spitzer asked the former Big Board chairman in a deposition about personal relationships and collected information about Mr. Grasso’s spending habits and his family’s travel.

Threatening to reveal a company’s business conduct? Wow. And asking questions in a deposition about relationships and family travel? That is mean.

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.