The discussion around the corporate star-studded Dealbook conference last week was good, but I don’t think it got to the main issue.
I mostly agreed with Margaret Sullivan, who put her finger on the issue of indebtedness. America’s most important newspaper hosts a group of A list executives from companies the paper covers—Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman, Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi—that The New York Times covers. Having organized similar, mini-versions (without money; we don’t charge), I know that these are value exchanges that involve a much more intense degree of collaboration between news organization and source than is found in the normal journalism give-and-take. There are approvals to be gotten, logistics to work out, press-release wording to be checked, ground rules to be laid. The people who speak to the function are the attraction that others are paying up to $1,500 a head to hear. They are doing you a favor.
But still, that’s not the main issue. The idea that the Times will be more reluctant to now go after Google, JP Morgan, or Goldman if a story arises is hardly out of the question, but also far from a given. If a good Goldman story comes up, I think the Times does it and just doesn’t invite Blankfein next year (here’s hoping!). As for Nooyi, I see little risk of the Times turning down a big expose of Sierra Mist Cranberry Splash or Funyons.
I liked Felix Salmon’s sensible take that a.) these conferences are profit centers for news organizations which don’t have many of those these days, and b.) that access journalism, which is what this conference is all about, has its place, even if, as he admits, no one expects any news to come out these. And, right on schedule, it didn’t.
I also agree with Felix that these panels and interviews aren’t meant to be interrogations—quite the opposite. He says the main point for attendees is to meet each other, and to get the right attendees, you need A list speakers. I hadn’t thought of that. Smart point.
Gerald Marzorati, the editor who organized the event, provided a clue to a deeper problem when asked by Sullivan about the problem of the paper being indebted to leaders of powerful institutions it covers.
“I can understand that question, but I see no evidence of a problem,” he said, other than one of “the optics” - that is, the appearance as opposed to reality. Once on stage, he noted, the journalists did their part admirably and The Times’s news coverage of the participants has been tough-minded.
In the end, what’s in it for the audience is “a great show and the chance to mingle with one another,” Mr. Marzorati said. What’s in it for the headliners is “not about cozying up to Times journalists, but the ability to talk about things other than their day jobs” - like matters of public policy.
And it is true that the Times coverage of Goldman was particularly tough, especially during and after the crisis. It was the Times that first alerted the nation that the AIG bailouts were actually about Wall Street, namely Goldman Sachs. And it was the Times that advanced the Abacus story that was part of the dynamic that forced Goldman to settle civil fraud charges with the Securities and Exchange Commission for $550 million, which is what passes for justice these days when it comes to white-collar prosecution on Wall Street. Still, that’s Eric Holder’s problem. In fact, it was the Times that did the best job calling out Holder, who is now well on his way to becoming one of the sorriest attorneys general ever. The paper did it so well that we put it in The Best Business Writing 2012.
Those stories were written by Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story, who don’t work for Dealbook. But that’s part of the balancing act that big institutional news organizations must do.
And yet, “the optics” weren’t right, were they?
And here’s the reason: It is one thing to invite Eric Schmidt and Indra Nooyi, and even Steve Schwarzman. They didn’t crash the financial system.
But Dimon and Blankfein are leaders of institutions that every one knows, and major government investigations have confirmed, helped to cause one of the greatest financial catastrophes in history, one that shook the entire world, tipped 10 million into foreclosure, 23 million into joblessness, set back whole neighborhoods, whole communities for a generation or more. And on and on.