Dean Starkman loves Gretchen Morgenson

By Felix Salmon
June 18, 2009

Dean Starkman has a 4,148-word love letter to Gretchen Morgenson in The Nation; it’s far from clear that his feelings are reciprocated, despite the fact that he calls her “the most important financial journalist of her generation”, and dismisses her critics as trying to start “arguments about wallpaper design in a burning house”.

Starkman spends a full 827 words on just one of Morgenson’s stories — the one which which ran in September about Goldman Sachs’s exposure to AIG. Everybody from Lloyd Blankfein to Tim Geithner took issue with the story, and the NYT ran a correction a couple of days later, and it’s quite clear that the story was written without any consideration of Goldman’s counterparty hedging operation — which was, and is, the most sophisticated such operation on Wall Street. Goldman swears up and down that its exposure to AIG, while large, was fully hedged; neither Starkman nor the New York Times has come up with any evidence to the contrary. Yet somehow Starkman has still managed to persuade himself that “the story stands”.

Starkman is also curiously blasé about the conflicts inherent in the fact that Morgenson writes both news stories and opinion columns. This violates a key principle, as laid out by the NYT’s top editor, Bill Keller:

I think you are more likely to present a full and fair-minded story if your objective is not to bolster an argument, but to search out the evidence without a predisposition – including evidence that might contradict your own beliefs. Once you have proclaimed an opinion, you feel compelled to defend it, and that creates a natural human temptation to overlook inconvenient facts or, if I may borrow a phrase from the famous Downing Street memo, fix the facts to the policy.

Starkman, by contrast, skates over the issue, saying only that Clark Hoyt’s disapproval of the Morgenson conflict — he concluded that “I would not have reporters writing opinion about the subjects they cover” was “not very convincing”.

If you’re a columnist who also reports, it’s paramount that you feel free to change your opinions over time, otherwise you are bound to end up writing news stories which are consciously or unconsciously tilted so as not to contradict ideas you’ve previously committed yourself to holding. Morgenson, I think it’s fair to say, is not the kind of person who changes her mind. And that makes her dual status as reporter and columnist highly problematic. The NYT should let her do one or the other, but not both.

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