When Financial Media Blogs Collide

Competing views of journalism emerge

As Ryan Chittum noted on Saturday, Yvette Kantrow, a columnist and editor with The Deal, a Wall Street trade publication owned by Wall Street investors, suggests that The Audit recently failed to write something for fear of offending a Wall Street funder.

In the column, “The Sound of Silence,” she says—or rather asks pointedly whether—our failure to review the excellent anti-Goldman Sachs polemic by Matt Taibbi in the recent Rolling Stone was due to the fact that Goldman gave us $25,000 this year.

This was embarrassing. Fortunately, not for us.

A torqued-off Chittum, who handles our daily blog, pointed out that the only problems in Kantrow’s column were the facts surrounding the Taibbi piece and our record regarding Goldman.

I won’t repeat what he said, but it’s worth emphasizing that Ryan told her in response to a query prior to her post, he was actually working on a piece that praised the Taibbi article at the very moment she wrote him. He had it up by the end of the day.

So the “silence” wasn’t silence after all.

When informed of that inconvenient fact, Kantrow then implied in her column that Chittum wrote his piece in response to her query: “He also said he would include the Taibbi story in a roundup of Goldman’s earnings coverage that would run the next day.”

That’s pretty rotten. In fact, as he told her, he was writing for that very night, Wednesday, which is indeed when the column posted.

But Ryan at this point is a battle-scarred blogger. He doesn’t need anybody’s help.

The Kantrow column reminded me of the Sotomayor hearings that had white, male Southern senators criticizing the Latina nominee for alleged racism. It’s upside-down. A Wall Street organ owned by Wall Street interests slamming The Audit—which, to the point of tedium, takes the press to task for its weak Wall Street coverage—for being insufficiently tough on people like those who own The Deal.

What’s behind it?

I feel a bit hurt personally because, having been asked by Kantrow for my take on the question, I crafted a fairly lengthy reply, but wasn’t quoted at all! Waah! This is unfair (sniffle), not least because, besides all my stuff about Goldman in CJR, I wanted another chance to plug my latest freelance piece in The Nation, a profile of Gretchen Morgenson, which leads with and holds up for praise—yet again—her expose last September of Goldman’s stake in the AIG bailout. I spend much ink debunking Goldman’s mistaken idea that it had somehow been wronged by the Times (apart from a blown fact that was subsequently corrected) and spent hours on the phone arguing with
Goldman people over that story. And this is the thanks I get (sob)?

Kantrow had a fair column about our conflicts and how well we do or don’t manage them. But this one had an extra twist—unkind musings on why we might tank a Goldman piece.

We were tempted speculate that the silence may stem from the fact that Goldman is one of the Audit’s backers…That could make it decidedly awkward for the site to deal with Taibbi’s takedown. It’s a tough situation. Praise the Taibbi and piss off a funder; tear the story apart and look like its mouthpiece.

Or, dum-dee-dum, maybe it’s something else! Hmm. I’m tempted to speculate that I’m Lloyd Blankfein’s love child! Yvette, do go on, you little scamp. The possibilities are limitless, and we find this
baseless speculation strangely arousing!

Actually, the Deal has had it in for The Audit for a while. It makes us feel bad. But, believe it or not, there’s something bigger to consider in this little spat:

Kantrow is right about one thing. As she says, The Audit has “repeatedly railed about the business press’s failure to take on big financial institutions.” Audit Readers, that failure is real; it is now documented; and it clearly implicates the insular business-press culture of which The Deal is certainly a part, albeit in an extreme form.

If The Audit is about anything, it is about pushing back against a financial press culture that grows ever narrower in its focus, more geared toward investors, less toward citizens, more about comings and goings of big shots, less about the consequences of these clowns’ decisions, more about access, less about accountability, more timid, less imaginative, and generally more inclined to spend resources chasing deals and other petty scoops like a pack of greyhounds after a mechanical rabbit. These trends represent a retreat from business journalism’s own traditions, and we don’t like it.

Don’t kid yourself. Behind the bickering of two small journals are competing ideas about journalism.

Basically, we’re against dealism. We’re for i-dealism, and, for that matter, business journalism—broad, robust, sophisticated, plugged-in, arms-length, and courageous.

As I’ve said before, we like deals (and, for that matter, inside-Wall Street-coverage) as much as the next financial-media-critic blog. But business journalism is much bigger than that.

Most business reporters know what I’m talking about, even if the cynics don’t. It is the reporters who have to operate inside the invisible fence that defines what is and isn’t a business story, and they have every interest in widening the field. They’re ready for a new direction. All it takes is leadership.

And so it is true, we have a big bone to pick with the business press, especially when it comes to its coverage of Wall Street. So should all readers.

But let me say this in defense of the mainstream bizpress, including and especially my former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal, which, as the financial media’s flagship and agenda-setter, has come under some of our toughest criticism: whatever our differences, they make their arguments, if sometimes heatedly, on the merits, without cheesy speculation as to motive. Maybe they assume we argue in good faith. Maybe they think we might have a point. Or maybe they’re just pros.

Kantrow and The Deal go a different way. They don’t like The Audit. That’s clear. It makes sense, and it’s all right with us.

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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.