The New York Times reported yesterday that JPMorgan Chase is under federal investigation for hiring the children of China's elite with the explicit goal of boosting the bank's business prospects. Good. Nepotism on Wall Street is just as gross as nepotism at the media outlets that cover Wall Street.
Why do people have a knee-jerk revulsion of nepotism? Because it is a practice that tickles our most deep-seated moral gag reflex. Nepotism—or, more accurately, favoritism bestowed upon those with the right family and friends—is an implicit rejection of fairness, of equal opportunity, and of meritocracy. It is a thumb in the eye of what America likes to think it stands for. It is a blow to our own self image. There has never been a time when favoritism did not exist in the highest reaches of capitalism. But when it stares out at us so blatantly that it can't be ignored, it serves as a tangible symbol of the fact that the game is rigged. That life is not fair. That the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, and that it ain't what you know but who you know, and all of the other cynical slogans that we try to convince ourselves are not true. It is not that the children of the elite are necessarily unqualified for their own elite positions; it is that they got those positions without having to struggle and climb the ladder and rise through the ranks and apply and be accepted and prove themselves like everyone else. Their good jobs are an affront to the hiring process. They are a kick in the shins of the "If I can do it, so can you" crowd. They stick in our craw. They make us queasy. And they fucking well should.
When it becomes impossible to deny the existence of nepotism, the only route left is to argue that nepotism is okay. It is no coincidence that nepotism's biggest defenders tend to be those who are in a position to benefit from nepotism.
We sincerely applaud the Times' investigative work into JPMorgan's grotesquely tit-for-tat "Sons and Daughters" hiring program, where job contracts were handed out and then the resulting business benefits were added up— just another profit and loss equation. We wish that the world of journalism, which serves as the public's referee for such crimes, did not also suffer from the same cozy impulses.
It would be nice if the New York Times did not bestow glowing coverage of incalculable PR value upon the well-connected children of finance titans who happen to be personal friends of Andrew Ross Sorkin, or upon Thomas Friedman's daughter's college roommate. It would be nice if the Times did not seem *quite* so welcoming to the work of the children of its own staffers. (It would even be nice if the world's leading newspaper would not inevitably be handed off to the son of the current boss!) And, slightly further afield in the The Fourth Estate, it would be nice if media moguls did not hire their own unqualified children for high level editorial positions, and it would be nice if millionaire news anchors did not pretend that their children made it in the entertainment world purely on their own talent, and it would be very, very nice if "news" networks did not engage in the insulting fantasy that the children and the siblings America's most powerful political figures were hired fairly to work in the field of "journalism."
The fact that the same media outlets that are enthusiastic practitioners of favoritism often feel compelled to run fluff feature stories that politely excuse the obvious effects of favoritism in the lives of people they cover is just a sprinkling of salt in the wound.
Favoritism is timeless. And it is just as unfair now as it was the day it was invented. Sometimes favoritism is a quid pro quo, a thinly veiled bid for business connections, money, and power; other times, it is merely a product of laziness and fortunate circumstance, a case of people hiring those directly in their sight line, rather than looking farther afield for the "best" candidate. In either case, it helps the elite maintain and accumulate power, position, and prestige, and it serves to keep the doors of upward mobility locked to those who do not have the right personal connections. It's detrimental to the American dream, whether on Wall Street, in politics, or in the arts. And it certainly has no place in journalism, where part of the job is calling out favoritism in the halls of power.
Let's all try harder.
[Photo of NBC correspondent Jenna Bush: AP]