The success of New York Times business reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin's tome Too Big to Fail has provoked a debate in the fractious newsroom: is he a plugged-in wunderkind or an in-over-his-head cub reporter who mooches off his veteran colleagues?
The 32-year-old Sorkin, the paper's chief mergers and acquisitions reporter, is quickly becoming one of the paper's most visible personalities. In the Times' byzantine network of loyalties and alliances, this makes Sorkin a divisive figure: Some old-guard investigators regard him as a callow and inexperienced note-taker for powerful interests. "He's the classic definition of an access reporter who wouldn't know a document if it hit him in the face," says one Times staffer. "He goes to drinks with these guys, they give him tips, and he puts them in the paper. He's a deal junkie."
For evidence of his coziness with the people he covers, look no further than the book party for Too Big to Fail—hosted by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter—which was attended by a seemingly endless roster of the Wall Street barons he's nominally charged with holding to account, from JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon to Morgan Stanley's John Mack.
He's also a rising star, and is said to be a favorite of business editor Larry Ingrassia's for his tireless reporting and excellent sources among Manhattan's privileged financial elite (cf. the aforementioned book party). With his assiduously maintained public profile—Sorkin is an easy booking on cable news shows—and role as editor of the Times' popular Dealbook blog, he is a face, for better or worse, of the future at a flagging and exhausted newspaper.
So it's not entirely surprising that knives were drawn by some of Sorkin's more experienced and established competitors and colleagues in response to slights, real and perceived, in Too Big to Fail. CNBC's Charlie Gasparino got the ball rolling earlier this month by calling Sorkin "incredibly stupid and sloppy"—and having his lawyer write Sorkin's publisher an angry letter—after Sorkin quoted Goldman Sach's CEO Lloyd Blankfein calling Gasparino a "rumormonger." A Goldman representative later disputed that quote.
Too Big to Fail is expected to debut at No. 4 on the Times' best-seller list next week. The rancor it has caused within the Times newsroom is no doubt a function in part of Sorkin's success, favor with top editors, and visibility at a time when 100 editorial positions are in the process of being eliminated. It's also a reaction against the notion that an upstart reporter who has made his name by greasing wealthy sources for access is presenting himself as a hard-nosed investigator—especially because Sorkin asked his paper's more experienced reporters for copies of the "secret" documents that he's now holding up as key sources for his 600-page tome just two weeks before it went to press.
As Keith Kelly first reported in the New York Post on Tuesday, some of Sorkin's Times colleagues are incensed at Too Big to Fail, Sorkin's best-selling new bailout narrative, accusing Sorkin of piggybacking on the reporting of his Times colleagues Don Van Natta and Gretchen Morgenson without giving adequate credit.
The allegations are being taken seriously in the building: The Post's Kelly reported that "senior editors" are investigating the matter, and we've learned that those senior editors are none other than executive editor Bill Keller and managing editor Jill Abramson. We also hear that public editor Clark Hoyt is looking into examining the matter.
At issue are two documents that Sorkin posted on his web site as "source documents" for the book, cited prominently in his endnotes, and has repeatedly claimed as vital parts of his reporting during his publicity tour: A September 17, 2008 ethics waiver that Paulson received from the White House allowing him to work closely with Goldman Sachs in managing the financial crisis, and Paulson's call logs from 2008. Here's Sorkin on CNBC flogging them:
The Paulson waiver is described on his site as "Paulson's Secret Waiver," and Sorkin excitedly recounted how he discovered it to Charlie Rose last week: "I will always remember one of the sources for the book said to me, 'Do you know about the waiver?' And I said, 'What waiver? What are you talking about?' He said, 'The Paulson waiver on Wednesday.'"
That sort of "plugging" is inciting apoplexy among Sorkin's antagonists at the Times. "He's making these central to what the book supposedly discovered," one Times staffer says.
That's because both documents were central to an August 9, 2009 investigative story by the Times' Van Natta and Morgenson detailing Paulson's handling of the crisis and his entanglement with his former employer Goldman Sachs. Van Natta and Morgenson obtained them via the Freedom of Information Act in July. The idea of FOIAing call logs of a cabinet secretary isn't exactly a brainstorm—it's a routine way of figuring out what's going on inside the federal bureaucracy. And the existence of the waiver was revealed by Paulson himself in congressional testimony on July 16, 2009. Neither document was a state secret, but Van Natta and Morgenson got hold of them and were the first to write about them in the Times in August. Both documents figure prominently in Too Big to Fail and its publicity campaign, but Sorkin's book makes no mention of Van Natta and Morgenson's story.
Sorkin says he FOIA'd both documents on his own, independently of Van Natta and Morgenson's reporting, and that he will include an endnote crediting their story with revealing them first in the book's next printing. And there's a pretty good reason that the story wasn't credited in the book: By August 9, when the story appeared, Sorkin's book was in the very final stages of editing. Even if he could have inserted a credit to the Times for first unearthing the documents, it would have involved a last-minute change to a massive project. We can understand how it would slip by.
But the issue over credit is in part a proxy for what really has some Times staffers ticked off: Sorkin called Times Sunday business editor Tim O'Brien on July 27—after he'd filed his draft of the 600-page book and two weeks before it went to the printer—and asked him for copies of the Paulson call logs. In other words, Sorkin was asking the Times for help on his homework at the last possible minute. And sources at the Times say some in the newsroom, including Van Natta, suspect Sorkin learned about the Paulson waiver during that conversation—he was, Sorkin's detractors say, "pickpocketing" the Time's reporting for his book. O'Brien didn't give up the logs, and Sorkin says he obtained both the logs and the waiver via FOIA—with an extremely rapid turnaround—after that conversation with O'Brien. "We never spoke about any details of what story the paper was pursuing," Sorkin says, "nor did we discuss Paulson's waiver."
Whether he came up with the idea of getting the waiver and the logs on his own, or tried to grab them from the Times once he learned about them—and there's no evidence for the latter accusation—it's clear that Sorkin didn't lay hands on what he calls the "source documents" for Too Big to Fail until he was in the process of fact-checking the book that he'd already written. In the introduction to his endnotes, Sorkin writes that "I tried to rely as often as possible on the written record" and that "Henry Paulson's...calendars helped provide key dates and times." How can that be if he didn't actually have that written record until after he finished the book?
Sorkin says he had the information in Paulson's call logs, he just didn't have the actual logs themselves. He'd been allowed to view them and take notes, he says, over the course of 10 months he spent reporting on the book. "My sources made me privy to various documents and information in people's calenders, including Hank Paulson's," he says. Same thing with the waiver. He first learned of it from a source in June of 2009, he says—before Paulson referred to it in congressional testimony—and had been shown a copy in the course of his reporting. He just wasn't allowed to take it home. So his last-minute rush to get them, he says, was a good-faith effort to fact-check the information he'd already reported.
Sorkin says he had previously filed FOIA requests for the logs and the waiver, but they had been denied. When he heard through his reporting that Treasury was releasing the logs, he called to ask for them. The Treasury said they'd already given them to the Times, and that he could either get them from the paper or file a new request. So he called Ingrassia, who told him to ask O'Brien. "When I reached Tim," Sorkin says, "he said there was no way for me to get them given my time constraint to have the fact-checking complete within days." So Sorkin filed his own last-minute request and got the documents in time to check some facts in the book against them, insert a photograph of Paulson's waiver, and put them up on the book's web site.
Sorkin, however, says everything has been smoothed over. "This has all been resolved," he says. He also provided a statement from Ingrassia praising his book as a "reporting tour de force":
We're all very proud of Andrew Ross Sorkin and his new book, Too Big To Fail. Throughout the financial crisis, Andrew worked closely and tirelessly with the Times team of colleagues to provide the paper's readers with exclusive news and insight about this historic event. His book is a reporting tour de force about the financial meltdown and contains a wealth of original material and undisclosed details about what transpired. As attested by 40 pages of end notes and acknowledgments, it also generously credits Times colleagues and journalists at other publications for things they reported about the crisis. And as Andrew has already said, he intends to include yet another citation in future editions to an article about Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson by his colleagues Gretchen Morgenson and Don Van Natta.
The grand irony of this flap is that much of it would have been rendered moot had the Times simply done what Sorkin did so effortlessly: Put the documents at issue online. Had Van Natta and Morgenson's story been accompanied by images of Paulson's call logs and waiver, it probably never would have occurred to Sorkin to claim ownership over them in his publicity campaign for the book. But that's another Timesworld disconnect between the youthful web-focused culture and the old-school diggers—after Van Natta and Morgenson spent months working to get access to the documents, they apparently didn't think to push their editors to share the originals with their readers. Others did: Talking Points Memo got hold of the waiver on August 10, the day after the Times story, and put it up in their document collection without much fanfare. And you can read Paulson's call logs—"actually see inside what Treasury was doing," as Sorkin put it on CNBC—on the Department of Treasury's web site.