the audit

Ingrassia’s balancing act

Thoughts as The New York Times business editor steps aside
December 17, 2012

What are the most important American journalism jobs in the early 21st century? Given the Financial Crisis, you could make an argument for the business editor of The New York Times and the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. Those two organizations are, still, the most prominent players in the business news space, even today. They’re the ones with the horsepower and public prominence (Sorry, Bloomberg; sorry, Reuters; sorry, a hundred others) to put business and financial issues on the broader pubic agenda and to hold large financial institutions accountable before a mass, non-specialized audience.

So it’s not a small deal that both those seats changed hands recently. Journal’s Robert Thomson handed over his seat to Gerry Baker, to the sound of one hand clapping in Journal newsrooms and bureaus around the world. David Carr did a nice job conveying the stony silence with which this promotion was received. The Murdoch-owned Journal is a deeper story, to be explored another time.

And last week, Larry Ingrassia, who took over the Times business section in 2004, was quietly announced to be kicked upstairs.

I’ve written a roundly negative analysis about the journalistic performance of the business press generally in the run-up to ’08. That’s part of a deeper journalism problem, so deep I’m writing a book about it. And the Times, to be sure, owns a share of the problem. Ingrassia and I have argued about this in public forums more than once.

But even still, the Times business section under Ingrassia—especially after the crash—serves of an example of the balancing act that all journalism, and business journalism especially, has to navigate, and Ingrassia’s exit is a good time to think about it. (And, no, I’m not giving a full appraisal of his tenure or comparing it to Thomson’s. That’s a different, longer post. You know how it is.)

The balance I’m talking about is between Access and Accountability, the two great poles of American journalism.

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Felix Salmon recently makes the case that access journalism can be valuable indeed, and he will get no argument from me. As I’ve written before (paywall, sorry; well, not completely sorry), it’s a division of labor. It is a division, however, that will produce entirely different content and entirely different representations of reality. It’s a division that can make all the difference—and has—as I hope to argue in my book about reporting in the years preceding the financial crisis (out next year, fingers crossed).

The Times’s ability to gain access to Wall Street sources and to be seen as a player in financial circles isn’t really in dispute, or shouldn’t be. Ingrassia has presided over the rise of Dealbook run by the indefatigable Andrew Ross Sorkin, he of the large Rolodex. Sorkin put the newspaper on the map in financial circles, if not singlehandedly, almost, with his scoop-getting prowess about mergers and acquisitions and such. This area was once dominated by The Wall Street Journal back in the day. No more.

Felix calls Sorkin’s monster book, Too Big To Fall, a “genuinely important historical document” that “could probably have been written by no one else.” I said more or less the same thing. But I also argue that, as access journalism par excellaence, it could only present Wall Street figures—almost all of whom represented institutions that had helped cause the crisis—solely as heroic figures trying to stave it off. This book generated a sense of disconnect you could, as I said, drive a Town Car through.

Anyone doubting the Times’s access-obtaining prowess need only look at the mega conference at the Times Center last week featuring a Who’s Who of business and financial leaders, starting with Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein. (And I’m much closer to Margaret Sullivan’s view than Felix’s on this. Everyone understands the necessity of these conferences, but the issue is the paper’s potential indebtedness to sources, and a quote of Gerald Marzorati, who organized the event, is telling. “I can understand that question, but I see no evidence of a problem,” he said, other than one of “the optics.” Well, optics count, for one thing. But, having organized similar events (without the money part; ours are free), I can tell you, as I wrote the other day, “[they] involve, let’s say, a significantly enhanced degree of collaboration, beyond the normal journalism give-and-take, between news organizations and the powerful people and institutions that they cover.”)

Like I say, it’s a balancing act. And that absolutely means you can fall off, though usually it’s not so abrupt as a fall; more like a slow sinking into the warm, cushy, perfumed maw of access, where fancy canapés are served.

On the other side, credit must be given where it’s due, and to say that the Times has walked away from accountability reporting would be just wrong. In 2008, I compared its coverage of the crisis favorably to The Wall Street Journal’s, a judgment that I think holds up. More recently, I’m thinking of the 2010 blockbuster that kept the News Corp. hacking story alive until the Guardian could blow it open the next summer; the iEconomy series, especially the Foxconn story; and the monster-blowout WalMart bribery story. We should call these and other similar stories what they are: a public service.

(And it’s hard to tell how much the business editor had to do with this story or that one, but, generally speaking, it was Ingrassia’s watch, so he should get credit and blame.)

Another way to think of it is, if Sorkin has (plenty of) space to do what he does, so does Gretchen Morgenson, who, I’ve written, represents the other pole, does as well. This is the far more vulnerable space, bureaucracy-wise, with its time-consuming, expensive longform stories, confrontations, legal risks, and bridge-burning nature. But there it is.

Could it be bigger, better, with more? Sure.

But big institutional journalism, especially in the business-news business, is a balancing act between access and accountability, and the business section of the most important American newspaper under Ingrassia, it should be said, stayed up upright and held on to the umbrella.

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.