Earlier today a reader asked why we were paying so much attention to King of the Club, Charlie Gasparino’s new book. We would have thought that the answer was obvious: the book is a fascinating, candid and detailed look into the operation of Wall Street and it’s intersection with regulators, the press and the public in a moment of abundant crises.
September 11th, the accounting scandals, the growth of the financial press, public outrage at executive pay and the transformation of the New York Stock Exchange from a non-profit company to a publicly held corporation. So much of what we have now was being born in the period the book covers that it is worth every bit of attention we can give it.
We’ve given a lot of focus to the abusive prosecutorial tactics that Gasparino describes but now we’d like to switch out focus to the complicity of the press with these tactics.
As both the New York Times story and the New York Post story we linked to earlier demonstrate, the Spitzer squad worked very hard to orchestrate the press coverage of their investigations. And the stories Gasparino tells in his book show very clearly that one of the ways the Spitzer squad did this was to smear the targets of their investigations as bad guys, possibly dangerous people who operated outside of any ordinary moral framework.
It’s worth asking why the press cooperated with these tactics. In the aftermath of the investigations and impeachment of Bill Clinton, many people—and it’s safe to say that the media are over-represented in this category—turned against over-zealous prosecutors who dig into the personal lives of their targets. We reached something close to a national consensus that we were better off when prosecutors more narrowly focused their investigations. But Spitzer, years after the Clinton impeachment, was allowed to operate as a Ken Starr without Starr’s professor veneer of decency. And the press went right along with it.
Why didn’t they reveal the slimy tactics of the Spitzer squad? We suspect part of the problem was the fear of being “cut off” of access. Reporters compete for scoops, and often those scoops depend on sources who will leak information to them. In the NYSE case, reporters assigned to the story were largely at the mercy of the investigators, who could cut-off uncooperative reporters, leaving them without copy to bring to their editors while their competitors filed stories with the newest dirt. They probably felt—not unrealistically—that their very jobs were on the line.
This reveals an unfortunate state of affairs. Playing bugle boy while government officials call the tunes from behind a veil of anonymity is not investigative journalism—it’s hardly journalism at all. It’s closer to propaganda. It would have been far better had the journalists turned their backs on the Spitzer squad, or even revealed these tactics to the public. Sure they may have lost some “good” stories but they could have painted a truer picture of what was gong on. But that’s probably too much to hope for.