Trust no one

| March 20, 2012 | 1 Comment

You won’t believe the conflicts lurking among financial journalists.

Of all the ripples caused by Greg Smith’s screed against Goldman Sachs –yes, we’re still talking about it, it’s THAT big — the most amusing to watch were reactions like this one from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as reported in the Financial Times:

The New York mayor, who founded one of the world’s biggest financial news and data organisations which counts Goldman among its clients, said “someday you can tell me” why The New York Times published the article, adding that it was “beyond me”.

What’s really puzzling Mayor Mike is why a nobody like Greg Smith was given such a platform to air his grievances. Bloomberg was never troubled by Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit’s editorials or JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s interviews, but little old Greg Smith was apparently a bridge too far. James Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley felt the same:

“To pick a random employee, I just don’t think it’s fair and I didn’t think it was balanced,”

Apparently the only messages that count are those that are approved and massaged from on high. Given this outlook, it’s a miracle that we have found out as much as we have about the ignoble deeds that have been, and still are, being committed in finance. Thank goodness for those hardhitting finance journalists we have. The dirtdiggers, the truthseekers, the grizzly, hard-bitten reporters holding the line at places like the Financial Times, the New York Times, etc. Right?

Well, a new post from Paul Starobin at the Columbia Journalism Review will make you think again. From Starobin we learn that the FT’s Gillian Tett is in great demand as a speaker-for-hire by…some of the very financial services companies she covers. Enough to earn “well into the six figures”, as she states. Who else is playing this game?

The list includes Michael Lewis, a best-selling author and contributing editor to Vanity Fair; Niall Ferguson, the author, Harvard professor, and a featured contributor to Newsweek and The Daily Beast; James Surowiecki, who writes “The Financial Page” column for The New Yorker; and James B. Stewart, the author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written widely for newspapers and magazines. (Stewart says he’s done no speaking engagements with for-profit sources since he began writing a financial column for The New York Times in June 2011.)

Martin Wolf, another FT writer whom I greatly admire, also accepts paid speaking engagements from financial firms.

Maybe I shouldn’t be shocked by this, but I am. And quite upset, as well. Newspapers are on hard times and everyone has the right to earn a living. But journalism, like finance, is about trust and how to ethically manage the conflicts that come naturally with the territory. It’s also about access and the things that we subtly, perhaps even unconsciously, do or don’t do in order to not offend important constituents.

Asked why she thought journalists like herself were sought to speak at Wall Street events, Tett, whose 2009 book Fool’s Gold skewered the financial industry, replied: “We’re paid to think on our feet. It’s not because they’re trying to buy our minds or influence.”

I have a hard time believing that accepting hundreds of thousands in fees from financial firms will have no effect on how a financial journalist ends up covering their beat. Any journalist who thinks they can manage this dichotomy is either fooling themselves or in need of medical attention for split personality disorder.

And even if the journalists don’t know what they’re selling (which again, I doubt) you’d better believe that the firms signing the checks are very clear about what they’re hoping to buy. Why, for example, do you think that a firm like Citi has been sponsoring a “journalistic excellence” award for 30 years in many of the 100-odd countries in which it operates? The lucky winner gets a sponsored week at…the Columbia School of Journalism, plus souvenirs and gifts.

I suggest that you read Starobin’s entire piece, in which he lays out which newspapers stand for this sort of things and which ones don’t.


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Category: Business