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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.

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