Bloomberg with attitude

By Felix Salmon
July 26, 2012

Bloomberg News has been run, since inception, along the lines laid out very clearly by its editor-in-chief, Matt Winkler, in The Bloomberg Way. But you don’t need to buy a copy of the book to know what the Bloomberg Way means: if you spend any time at all reading Bloomberg articles, you’ll know exactly how it feels to read them.

Of late, however, Bloomberg has started injecting some serious attitude into various parts of the empire which are close to — if not strictly part of — the central news organization. Look at Richard Turley’s covers for Bloomberg Businessweek, for instance: “Most of my work involves trying to turn the capitalist system against itself,” he told AdAge, “but try not to tell anyone that”. Or look at @bobivry’s balls-out Twitter feed (sample tweet, from yesterday: “Sandy Weill just made me throw up.”)

Now a Bloomberg View columnist, Bill Cohan, has delivered an entire column devoted to fisking Loren Feldman’s long NYT piece about the court case currently pending against Goldman Sachs brought by James and Janet Baker, a couple who sold their company for $580 million in worthless stock.

I remember thinking, when I read Feldman’s story, that it felt like it wasn’t telling the whole story. For one thing, how was it that this lawsuit has managed to drag on for over a decade? (Although Feldman never actually says when the suit was filed, so that bit was always a bit fuzzy.) And secondly, what kind of M&A banker blithely goes on vacation when his client is having a hugely important meeting with the acquiring company, saying that he would be unable to call in “and that it was pointless to send anybody else from Goldman because there wasn’t time to catch up on the deal”?

Cohan doesn’t answer either of those questions, but he does reveal other germane information which Feldman either missed or chose to ignore. For instance: Goldman advised the Bakers consider hedging the stock they received in the transaction; the Bakers rejected that advice. And: the Bakers’ suit against Goldman is just one of many different lawsuits they have brought against more than 30 separate defendants, including KPMG and SG Cowen; so far those suits have resulted in the Bakers being awarded more than $70 million. And: in those suits, at least according to Goldman, the Bakers swore under oath that their company had done due diligence on its acquirer; that the due diligence was not Goldman’s job; and that in any case “no amount of due diligence could have detected the fraud”.

Cohan concludes by describing Feldman’s story as a “one-sided potshot” — and I have to say I love it when I see that kind of say-what-you-mean language coming from any part of the Bloomberg empire. Winkler is notoriously allergic to ad hominem attacks, and media organizations in general tend to be very shy when it comes to criticizing each other, especially outside clearly-labeled media-criticism ghettoes. No one wants to throw the first stone.

The fact is, however, that Cohan’s column does a good job of placing Feldman’s story in a bigger perspective. I don’t sign on to Cohan’s opinions, either in this piece or elsewhere: I think his sympathy with Goldman’s argument that it was only advising the company and not its shareholders, for instance, is misplaced. And while I’m OK with opening sentences which liken Goldman Sachs to a deep-sea cephalopod, Cohan’s decision to compare the company to Jerry Sandusky seems unnecessarily vile.

But when it comes to the substance of Cohan’s column, I think he makes his case quite well: it can be dangerous to take NYT stories about Goldman Sachs at face value. I only wish that Feldman felt free to reply, and that we could have some real iterative journalism here about what really went on in this deal.

Most of all, though, I wish that one of Feldman and Cohan had seen fit to upload some or all of the legal source materials they reviewed. The NYT’s document viewer is great for such things, and Bloomberg is entirely capable of publishing primary documents too. Here’s the one place where Feldman and Cohan are saying exactly the same thing: Feldman talks about how his account “is based on a trove of legal filings”, and Cohan talks about how his piece is based on vague “court documents I reviewed”. Neither links to any of those documents, and neither gives much of a hint of what exactly those documents are, or where they might be found. It’s classic “trust me, I’m a journalist” reporting, and it’s offputting in both instances.

By all means tell us what certain documents are saying. But when you do so, show us those documents at the same time, so that if we’re so inclined, we can judge for ourselves. At the very least, if you don’t upload or point to the documents, explain why you’re failing to do so. Right now, we know that Feldman looked at a bunch of documents and came away thinking very little of Goldman; we also know that Cohan looked at a bunch of documents and came away much more sympathetic to the bank. But we don’t even know whether they were even looking at the same documents or not. And neither is letting us draw our own conclusions.

So while Bloomberg’s move into content-with-attitude is entirely welcome, I’d love to see it do more when it comes to linking to primary documents. The NYT, too, for that matter. Both of them are good at such things sometimes: Jonathan Weil, in particular, is great. But it doesn’t seem to have sunk in to the corporate DNA yet.

Update: Apparently Cohan did attach two documents to his column, but they initially showed up only on the Bloomberg terminal. They’re up online now; let’s hope for more!

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