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Greed and Excess at the New York Times

From The Scrapbook

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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One of the stranger episodes in contemporary journalism has just occurred in the pages of the New York Times, and what it means is a question the otherwise omniscient Scrapbook would like to answer, but cannot.

Photo of the New York Times headline

It all began last Wednesday when the Times published an op-ed piece entitled “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” by a South African financier named Greg Smith. Like many more-in-sorrow-than-anger accounts of an awakened conscience, Smith’s essay went to considerable lengths to assure readers that the author is a gentleman of high standards and higher ideals, and that his decision to leave his friends and colleagues at the cesspool otherwise known as Goldman Sachs was not lightly taken. Mr. Smith had been at Goldman Sachs for nearly a dozen years; indeed, as he records it, since the moment he graduated from Stanford, which he had attended on “a full scholarship.” But apparently, it was a terrible strain. “I can honestly say,” he writes of Goldman Sachs, “that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.” 

There is, of course, a smidgen of cynicism within the soul of The Scrapbook, which prompted us at first to exclaim, “So now he tells us!” If Smith had walked away from the pot of gold when his career was flying high, or Goldman Sachs was more conspicuously successful (say, at any time before the financial meltdown of 2008), we might have been impressed by his predicament. But there is evidence to suggest that Smith’s disillusion coincided with a certain stagnation in his status at the firm, not to mention stagnation or worse in the firm’s profits and bonuses, and his decision to be shocked, shocked by his employer’s corporate culture might therefore be described by some as opportunistic.

The Scrapbook, by the way, holds no brief for Goldman Sachs​—​which might very well be as Smith describes it​—​and certainly does not speak with authority on this subject. The Times identifies its author as a “Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa”​—​which is just as incomprehensible to The Scrapbook as, we suspect, it is to most readers.

No, what struck us with the force of a Goldman Sachs derivative was the following day’s front page of the New York Times. The lead story was not about Afghanistan, or the Republican campaign, or the visit of the British prime minister to Washington. It was about Greg Smith’s op-ed piece in the previous day’s New York Times

“Public Rebuke of Culture At Goldman Opens Debate,” screamed the lead headline, and the subhed described “An Unusual Cry From a -Financial Insider​—​Discussion of Greed and Excess.” In the Business section of the Times there were three​—​count ’em, three​—​separate stories about the Times’s op-ed, and each headline was more tantalizing than the one before: “Public Exit From Goldman Raises Doubt Over a New Ethic,” “Name It; Clients Are Called It,” and The Scrapbook’s particular favorite, “Goldman Executive’s Resignation Letter Draws Backers, Detractors and Satirists.”

This is what is known in the business as manufactured news, and while it is a long-established practice among certain publications, it has largely been confined to what the New York Times would call the “tabloid” press. A paper will get an exclusive interview with the mistress of a public figure, or buy a posthumous photograph of a dead celebrity, and you can forget about anything else going on in the world that day. This may be standard operating procedure at the New York Post or, moving downscale, at the -National Enquirer; but this is the first time The Scrapbook has ever seen such a self-generated nonevent advertised to such an impressive degree in the news pages of the New York Times

And of course, the lesson in all this is that while mistresses and Greg Smith and the National Enquirer and Goldman Sachs and celebrity corpses and the New York Times may not appear, at first glance, to have much in common, they are all in it for the same reason.

Disenchantment with Obama

The timing of a New York Times poll showing Barack Obama’s approval rating dropping like a rock was almost too perfect. “Centrist Women Tell of Disenchantment With G.O.P.,” read the headline of a March 11 story in the Times. Six reporters strung together a series of interviews purporting to show that GOP opposition to Obama’s new contraception and abortifacient mandate was badly hurting Republicans with moderate and independent female voters. To its credit, the Times noted that its evidence was “anecdotal, not conclusive.”

Indeed. The following day, the New York Times/CBS News poll in question was released. It showed Obama’s approval at an all-time low of 41 percent​—​down 9 points from the Times’s February poll. But why? The economy was on the rebound. Was there a polling glitch? Perhaps, but a Washington Post/ABC poll conducted over the same period also found Obama’s numbers dropping from February. Both the Times and the Post suggested rising gas prices were the likely culprit.

Jonathan Chait of New York magazine pointed to studies showing that gas prices don’t move poll numbers and offered another possible reason Obama had taken a hit. “The jobs report reflected good news, of course. But this may actually be the problem for Obama. A Democracy Corps survey from last month tested elements of Obama’s State of the Union address. The whole thing fared extremely well, except for one bit, where Obama boasted that ‘America is back,’ ” Chait wrote. “Obama appeared at a factory to hail the [jobs report], and even declared later that day, yes, ‘America is coming back.’ ”

Hmmm. The Scrapbook has an alternative hypothesis. Seems to us that one poorly poll-tested phrase, uttered at a fundraiser in Houston, may have had less to do with Obama’s poll numbers than a national debate that had been raging for a full week when the polls were taken.

On March 1, the Senate narrowly voted down an amendment to retain existing conscience exemptions, allowing Americans to opt out of Obama-care’s new contraception and abortifacient mandate for religious or moral reasons. That week the nation was subjected to a media firestorm​—​online and in print, on the nightly news and the Sunday shows​—​about a Republican “war on women” epitomized by Rush Limbaugh’s derogatory remarks about Sandra Fluke. Fluke is the 30-year-old Georgetown Law student who had testified before a congressional panel about the need for a federal mandate to force Georgetown, and other religious institutions, to foot the cost of students’ birth control pills. Obama waded into the Limbaugh-Fluke flap and discussed his reasons for doing so at a March 6 press conference.

According to the Times poll conducted from March 7 to 11, Americans support a conscience exemption to the birth control mandate for religious institutions by a 21-point margin (57 percent to 36 percent) and support a conscience exemption for all employers by an 11-point margin (51 percent to 40 percent). 

Of course, these numbers weren’t mentioned in the Times’s write-up of its own poll. That’s because the numbers suggest, as Mickey Kaus wrote at the Daily Caller, that “Obama wasn’t such a genius to pick a fight over mandated contraception coverage,” a debate “he appears to be losing.”

Stimulating Lobbyists

Remember the debate over the stimulus bill? Anyone with any sense at all predicted that the government’s dispersing $800 billion with a legislative leaf blower would encourage corruption. In this respect, the stimulus is a gift that keeps on giving​—​rather in the manner of a communicable disease. Last week we learned about the latest developments in the stimulus-funded Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) initiative, a $650 million grant program for obesity prevention and tobacco use handed out to 30 states and the District of Columbia. Whether it will do anything about obesity remains to be seen, but the Daily Caller reports that the program has been remarkably successful at fattening the wallets of lobbyists: 

Money from some of the CPPW grants and also from the Community Transformation Grants (CTGs)​—​another Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program established to bolster the CPPW’s efforts​—​have been and are being used to lobby local governments in support of policies including sugar and soda taxes.

In a hearing to examine President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget for the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on health that she knew of the lobbying efforts but that they were acceptable​—​because the lobbying was taking place at the local level, and because the language governing the grants restricted grantees only from lobbying the federal government. She went on to add, however, that under the proposed budget local lobbying would be prohibited.

Translation: Using tax dollars to lobby for nanny-state regulations is probably illegal, but our esteemed HHS chief is going to tell Congress that she thinks it’s legal, hope no one makes an issue of it, and promise to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future just to cover her bases. 

Quick, someone get Sebelius a copy of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Section 1913. It wasn’t hard for Daily Caller reporter Caroline May to find: “No part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress shall, in the absence of express authorization by Congress, be used directly or indirectly to pay for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter, or other device, intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress, a jurisdiction, or an official of any government, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation.”

Unsafe at Any Speed

On March 10, former Florida congressman Alan Grayson, chiefly remembered for his noxious rhetoric against Republicans and for having his political career ablated by Rep. Daniel Webster, ran a red light and crashed his Mercedes into an Orlando city bus. The accident sent three of the bus passengers to the hospital. Grayson was on his way to a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser (he’s hoping to return to Congress). Headlining the event were anti-vaccination crusader and Hugo Chávez booster Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Curb Your Enthusiasm actress Cheryl Hines. We’re tempted to add something pithy about Alan Grayson, but sometimes the metaphors are obvious enough.

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