The Most Important Financial Journalist of Her Generation
On April 27, Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, sat down for a meeting at Goldman headquarters with Gretchen Morgenson, reporter, columnist and senior editor of the New York Times. The Wall Street titan and the Pulitzer Prize winner had never met, but this wasn't the usual polite getting-to-know-you session between reporter and source.
"I feel like I've been waterboarded," Blankfein told her, according to people familiar with the discussion. Blankfein was being dramatic, but he had reason to feel that way. It was Morgenson, after all, who had written the story this past fall that stripped the veil of secrecy from the most momentous closed-door deal in the annals of US finance: the government rescue of fallen insurance colossus American International Group. The September 28 story, "Behind Insurer's Crisis, a Blind Eye to a Web of Risk," was the first article published by a major news organization to reveal that the true beneficiaries of the bailout were the institutions to which AIG owed money, known as counterparties (mainly Wall Street investment banks). The 2,700-word piece said, among other things, that an AIG collapse "threatened to leave a hole of as much as $20 billion in Goldman's side" and that Blankfein attended a meeting at the Federal Reserve on September 15, the same day decisions were made to let Lehman Brothers fall and to save AIG.
Today this is common knowledge; until this story ran, though, it wasn't. The article was about as bold and valuable as business stories come and involved no small journalistic risks for the Times. Goldman, for instance, was able to wring a correction on the story and still feels wronged today. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, called Morgenson and her editor to question the article's premise, The Nation has learned. The piece has been the subject of endless parsing on financial blogs and, privately, sniping by Morgenson's peers. Was Goldman really exposed to AIG? And if so, how? Was it fair to mention Blankfein's presence at the Fed?
It would be too much to say that the story was all in a day's work for Morgenson. It was extraordinary. But it does open a window onto what makes Morgenson the most important financial journalist of her generation.
At 53, Morgenson is at the height of her career, read and feared in the corridors of power running from Wall Street to Washington. As a reporter and columnist (a controversial dual role), she is enormously productive. During the period following Lehman's bankruptcy, her byline appeared on major stories on Henry Cisneros and good housing goals gone bad, Merrill Lynch's collapse, corrupted rating agencies and Washington Mutual's boiler-room culture, in addition to the September 28 blockbuster on AIG--not to mention weekly 1,200-word columns on everything from rating-agency hypocrisy ("They're Shocked, Shocked, About the Mess," October 26) to a convoluted tax deal that imperiled an Indiana electrical cooperative ("Just Call This Deal Hoosier Baroque," December 21).
She breaks business-press taboos constantly. Her prose is blunt; some even say crude. ("Everybody knows that executive compensation at many companies has been obscene. What everybody does not know is how obscene obscene is now," she wrote in February 2006 in a not untypical column.) Morgenson doesn't just cover subjects but sometimes hammers them into submission, as when she banged out more than three dozen stories on Countrywide in 2007 and 2008 and almost single-handedly made CEO Angelo Mozilo the face of a rogue industry. Not coincidentally, on June 4 the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Mozilo with securities fraud, alleging that he misled investors about the increasing risks Countrywide was taking with loans that Mozilo privately called "toxic."
At this point, it is almost impossible for business reporters and editors not to have an opinion about Morgenson. Supporters cheer her tell-it-like-it-is style; detractors call her simplistic and agenda-driven. In certain Wall Street and business circles, she is flatly detested.
"She rules," says Aaron Elstein, a senior writer who covers Wall Street for Crain's New York. "She grasped that the game was rigged way before it was fashionable to do so." (He was talking about bogus accounting practices, but the remark holds more generally.)
"Unreadable," snaps a business journalism peer. "She writes like an Escalade running into a concrete barrier. And her relentless and repetitious pounding of simplistic issues is maddening."
"The consensus view of her among actual business people I know is pure contempt," says Jim McCarthy of CounterPoint Strategies, a public relations firm that has represented high-profile business-press targets. "Her work has a sort of drive-by, potshot quality to it that leads to habitual mistakes and ideological laziness. She is reflexively opposed to free markets and assumes bad faith in almost every subject or person she examines."
What both sides miss, and what sets Morgenson apart, is that she combines the blunt writing style with a prodigious fact-gathering ability and an accountability mindset all too rare in the business-press culture. This allows her to go beyond merely reporting and commenting on the public agenda. She helps to set it.