Wilke Was Itching to Go After the Madoff Story

In this post I said the Madoff story got caught up in the “Journal’s labyrinthine editorial structure.” In fact, I didn’t have enough evidence to support that. Subsequently, the Journal spokesperson got back to us, saying this: “As a general rule, we don’t comment on our news gathering decisions, but the statements you are providing us are materially wrong and don’t come from a person in a position to know our editing decisions.”

I just screwed this one up. Mea culpa.

With the attention on the Journal missing the Madoff story, I’ve tried to show that the breakdown is not as cut and dry as some of us would like to believe, however inexcusable it is.

Earlier today, I approvingly quoted Gary Weiss’s best guess as to how it happened:

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

They didn’t believe Markopolos.

But it appears that reporter John R. Wilke, at least, believed him—or at least thought it was intriguing enough to ask repeatedly if he could pursue the story.

I talked this afternoon with a person who worked in the Washington bureau with Wilke, the reporter who Markopolos corresponded with over three years in an attempt to get the Journal to expose the Madoff scam. This person says Wilke wanted to do the story but couldn’t get approval within the Journal’s labyrinthine editorial structure to proceed.

“Wilke was hot for the story but the editors had him on other things,” my source says. “The paper had been through cutbacks and didn’t have enough people to do everything at once.”

This person is sympathetic to Wilke, saying it’s unfair that he is being singled out in the coverage. I agree, though I’ll note that’s unavoidable since the emails are a part of the Congressional record now and Wilke’s name is the only one from the Journal in them.

But let’s also note that the way the Journal works, reporters have to pitch stories to editors before they can spend much time on them. It’s unclear how far up the chain this would have gone or if his immediate supervisors even allowed Wilke to get to the proposal process.

So as I’ve said before, nobody at the Journal squelched this story because they were afraid of Madoff or wanted into his fund or didn’t want to blow up the Ponzi scheme. Far from it.

The more likely explanation is that the moving parts of resource allocation, time management, and editorial priorities just didn’t align. Sometimes the machine breaks down, especially when it’s under the stress of having too few people to cover too many stories. That’s what likely gummed up the works, preventing the Journal from spitting out a Madoff blockbuster.

A Journal spokesperson couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

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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 rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.