“I don’t expect them to like what I do,” said Morgenson, an assistant business and financial editor for The New York Times who writes a weekly column titled “Fair Game.” “I am not part of their PR machine, and a lot of people in journalism don’t understand that’s OK.
Avoiding conflict of interest starts with declining a lot of invitations. “I don’t want to be at their party,” she said. “If I am one of the journalists who is in the room at the party, then I am not going to be able to report on these people in an unjaundiced way. I am going to be slightly conflicted if I am one of the people at the party reporting on them the next day when I go sit down at my desk.
“I don’t want to go to their parties. I don’t want to be invited. I don’t want to be inside the tent. I want my nose pressed up against the glass doing my job.”
Morgenson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her Wall Street coverage, made these comments on my interview program, “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” broadcast on WBGO FM and wbgo.org, an NPR affiliate in the New York area, and expanded her remarks later in a telephone interview.
She is diplomatic when an enraged CEO picks up the phone to lambast her for one of her columns. “People who don’t like what I do,” Morgenson said about the Wall Street titans who stew over her work. “They certainly try to come around and go to my editors to complain about my work and try to get me to stop. I don’t really mind when it happens … I don’t feel that I am being picked on.”
To that end, Jamie Dimon, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president of JPMorgan Chase & Co., telephoned Morgenson several weeks ago to criticize some of the stories she wrote about his bank’s foreclosure policies.
“He was trying to argue to me that his bank had done right by most of his clients and they were making loan modifications and were trying to keep people in their homes,” she said. “I’m fine to have a conversation like that, because it was a give-and-take, and I welcome that.”
Dimon told Morgenson his soon-to-be-released annual report would support his assertions about his bank’s foreclosure policies and asked her to read it. She is currently analyzing the document and said she approves of some of the language in it.
“He said in the report that (the bank’s behavior in the foreclosure crisis) was not the bank’s finest hour,” she said. “I like the fact that he wasn’t trying to sugarcoat anything. Banks don’t usually do that.”
But Morgenson isn’t ready to get on the bank’s payroll.
She refuses to add her name to the list of financial journalists who accept five-figure honorariums to speak at business conferences or events, even though agents for speaker’s bureaus periodically invite her to join the party. “It’s not something I am able to do because of the nature of my work,” she tells them.
She told the Columbia Journalism Review, however, that she occasionally participates in “financial-industry events” as long as she determines that they have not committed any wrongdoing, aren’t being investigated for anything, and aren’t doing any kind of business she might cover.
The New York Times code of ethics permits reporters to accept honorariums from universities, and Morgenson is a familiar face on the nation’s campuses.
The Times ethics code is a pain in the pocketbook, she admitted. “I am not allowed to own any stock, because of what I do for a living,” she said. “I own mutual funds, and I try to look for performance that looks good at low cost.”
Her email inbox is flooded with complaints every time she writes a column pointing out misbehavior on Wall Street. “The most frustrating question I get from people in all walks of life is ‘What can we do about it?’” she said. “And I don’t have an answer.”
But sometimes the answers come to the paper. She and her colleagues in the business section of the newspaper were surprised last month when Greg Smith, executive director and head of the Goldman Sachs equity derivative business in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, sent an op-ed piece skewering his own company.
Smith announced his resignation in the piece, calling the “environment” at the company “as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it,” adding that “I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.”
The media world was ablaze for days trying to determine whether the Times op-ed editors solicited Smith’s story or whether it came in the way thousands of others do — through the general inbox of firstname.lastname@example.org. The paper wouldn’t say how it hooked up with Smith, but Morgenson knows. “It came in through the transom to the op-ed section and not through the business department,” she said. “That’s my understanding of it.” And that’s exactly what happened, according to multiple sources.
Morgenson said her three years as a stock broker with Dean Witter Reynolds prepared her to cover the financial industry, first as a reporter for Forbes magazine and the last 14 years with the New York Times. Morgenson actually married into Wall Street, tying the knot in 1992 with John J. Devlin, then a managing director of the Bear Stearns investment banking firm, which has since merged with other firms and no longer exists.
“He always eggs me on,” she said of her husband. “He tells me to go get ’em. He works for a small money management firm (Glickenhaus & Co.) and has a long history of working for large firms that I have written about.
“He is in there saying go get ’em because he is an honest guy, and he doesn’t like the fact that there are dishonest people who give Wall Street a bad name.”
Morgenson said she believes that young journalists should be just as vigilant as she tries to be. “Journalism is always about the truth,” she said. “Don’t try to be friends with the people you are covering. You only have one reputation, and you can’t afford to lose it.”
Allan Wolper is a journalism professor at Rutgers University in Newark and writes the Ethics Corner column for Editor & Publisher.