Q: Tell me how your cops background plays into what you’re doing now.
A: You end up with a big BS detector as a cops reporter because the cops lie to you, the victims lie to you, the people helping the victims lie to you. And you’ve got to sort through, and there will be a story that seems a certain way, and it just won’t be—and you know it. That’s what this is about.
So Mark Pittman died last week.
The reason this is important is not just that Pittman was a great reporter, though he was that. “One of the great financial journalists of our time,” Joe Stiglitz says. That is true. He did do great stories. He won the Loeb; he had a Pulitzer coming one of these days. That was inevitable. Financial journalism lost a leading practitioner at the worst possible time.
I lost a friend. I realize my writing ability is not up to the job of expressing how I actually feel, but he was a great guy.
For a sense of the man and the reporter, all this you can learn in the obit manfully written on deadline by his pal, Bob Ivry. What a rotten assignment.
But for me, the thing that needs to be remembered, especially by financial journalists and the people who rely on them, is that Pittman represented an attitude, a feeling. It was the attitude that drove the journalism and, for me, defined the man. Take this quote from Ryan Chittum’s Audit Interview with Pittman from last February, which has suddenly become valuable historical record. I’ll add some emphasis:
It’s also that we realize this is a defining moment for business journalism and for Wall Street. I think that this organization, this news department, was built for this crisis. We’ve got more tools than anybody. We’ve got the will. We have the assets to go after this in a huge way. Everybody believes that in this room.
Hopefully, we will be able to inform the people enough to know how badly we’re getting screwed (laughs). We need to know how to prevent it from happening again, and we need to know who did it. There’s renewed energy on this front because we’ve staffed up the people who cover banks, the securities firms. We have a lot more people going at real estate and a bunch of different areas that this involves. That was a conscious move from meetings we started having in 2007. We hired people and we moved people from one area to another area.
My favorite part of the quote is probably this one: “(laughs).” It’s sort of, whoops, did I just say that? You get a sense of the joy he took in his work, of being someone lucky enough to be at the center of the financial universe at an inflection point, a time of fevered crisis and near collapse, when many of the financial system’s long-held secrets are laid bare or pushed close—so close—to the surface. Wall Street chieftains scrambling in panic around the New York Fed at all hours; oceans of government cash and credit loosed on financial institutions. And here is Bloomberg, the last financially robust news organization on the planet—it has more bureaus, 135 as of last year, than most news organizations have reporters—flying in people, hiring reporters and editors, getting them cell phones, corporate credit cards, those remarkable Bloomberg terminals, reorganizing desks, turning, slowing turning the organization with the ominous deliberateness of a Death Star, which happens to be a nickname among staffers for Bloomberg’s hyper-modern Lexington Avenue headquarters.
And there was Pittman, manning the con.
“This organization…was built for this crisis…We’ve got the will. We have the assets.”
A few other things to take from that quote: Notice that it is a defining moment not just for Wall Street, but for journalism; it’s not just about them, the bankers, the raters, the regulators, the Fed. It was about us, too. How do we respond?
And though he softened it with a laugh, we should pay Pittman the respect of listening to him when he says the job is to “inform the people enough to know how badly we’re getting screwed,” and also, “we need to know who did it.”
We need to know who did it. This is the attitude of a great cop reporter—albeit one who happens to know more about structured credit than just about anybody else.
This attitude is important to keep in our memory as we enter Crisis Year IV.
Pittman’s attitude informed his stories. His stories shaped the discourse. The discourse shaped the policy. That’s how it’s supposed to work.