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The social skills of great journalists

Gabe Sherman's profile of New York Times Wall Street savant Andrew Ross Sorkin has some pretty incredible anecdotes.

The book party for Too Big to Fail was a window into Sorkin’s world. No one tends to love a journalist after a story is written, especially one about a failure with as many fathers as the financial crisis. But Sorkin, remarkably, avoided this problem. Attendees — Sorkin’s presumed unnamed sources — included Jamie Dimon, John Mack, Ken Griffin, Steve Rattner, and Barry Diller. Warren Buffett mailed in an Ed McMahon–size “colossal-gram” that read, “Andrew … Congratulations! Your book will be bigger than this telegram.” “It showed how powerful he is,” says Jeffrey Taufield, a partner at the Wall Street PR firm Kekst and Company. “What you noticed when you went was how many powerful Wall Street people were there to kiss his ring,” adds The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, a party guest. “He’s a 32-year-old guy, and there were all these titans of Wall Street crowding around to say hello and make nice to Andrew.”

Journalism likes to sell itself as a form of detective work. That's certainly the depiction of Woodward and Bernstein in “All The President's Men,” and it's the industry's favored depiction of itself. But on the day-to-day level, great journalists are great at making, and keeping, knowledgeable friends. Buffett clearly likes Sorkin. That's different than being afraid of him. If you go back to Woodward and Bernstein, Woodward met Felt back when he was serving in the Navy, and the two men bonded over night law school and low-level positions with elected officials.

That's not to take away from any of their journalistic achievements. Detective work isn't entirely different -- sources are created and cultivated, relationships built and leveraged. But in detective work, sources are sometimes paid, or kept out of jail. Journalists generally don't have those carrots. And if you're not going to pay people for their knowledge, then you're going to need something that encourages them to tell you things they shouldn't, and that something is often, though not always, the social pressure of a preexisting camaraderie (other candidates are the desire for publicity, or the fear of being hurt in a story).

But sources are never identified as "Warren Buffett, the legendary financier and my personal friend," or "Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama confidante and someone I developed an improbably warm personal relationship with on the campaign trail." Readers would dismiss the story out of hand if they were. But that is why Buffett picked up the phone for that reporter, rather than for all the other reporters who put in an interview request.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 10, 2009; 3:13 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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I see a milder version of this problem in your posts interviewing &/or addressing Senators such as Lieberman / Nelson/ Conrad: what you say to them is softer than what you write about them, and what you write about them is softer than what Yglesias et alia write about them (which presumably has something to do with why you get to interview them). Their power seems to inherently reduce truth: you can stay an outsider and lose access to information, or you can step inside and give up, at least on the margin, the sharing of information you have.

Note that I am describing a structural problem, not criticizing you.

Posted by: DaffyDuck2 | November 10, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

DaffyDuck2, it is an irreducible structural problem. Think of viciously slamming Lieberman as akin to punching him in the face. Feels good, right? But if he knows you're probably going to deck him, will he let you get close to him?

You simply can't have it both ways. You can be a bomb thrower, but then you've got to expect that people will try to avoid helping you make them collateral damage.

Posted by: Oranger | November 10, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

I read Sorkin's blog. He loves bigshots. He thinks you can't pay them enough. He hates Madoff. He thinks Madoff gives bankers a bad name, and that reform needs to be directed primarily toward purging the Madoffs. This is a narrative any bigshot can love. Whether it will do the country any good is highly doubtful.

Posted by: bmull | November 10, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

"But on the day-to-day level, great journalists are great at making, and keeping, knowledgeable friends. Buffett clearly likes Sorkin. That's different than being afraid of him."

Keep believing that, Mr. young journalist...

I know, I know, you're such a sharp judge of character, no one could ever fool you by merely *pretending* to be your friend. Never happens.

Posted by: Ulium | November 10, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't an appearance in a Bob Woodward book as a reasonably sane soul indicate that the person treated Woodward in a cooperative way?

Posted by: bdballard | November 10, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Enjoy the seduction young padawan.

I look forward to reading a front page WaPo exclusive from a paunchy balding Ezra Klein in 2042 spouting the wisdom of the establishment as told to a puppet reporter who actually thinks he's the friend of people with real power.

Posted by: jamusco | November 10, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

I saw Ross Sorkin on Charlie Rose and thought he had a critical eye but also was able to play the inside game. I opened his book yesterday and turned to the photo section and was disgusted by the largely flattering images of Wall Street bigshots in it. He clearly has developed a niche that enables him to play both sides of the street, though I wouldn't expect him to really "break" a piece of investigative journalism. In retrospect "Too Big Too Fail" is about flirting with deep criticisms or fundamental reforms but not pushing for them, like you see various economists doing on their blogs or the way Soros is doing.

I would though point out that in the US, we have a journalistic culture that feels that ego massage is required to keep someone as a source. In Britain, journalists can really lay into public figures and feel as though they are not burning bridges. We need that kind of journalistic culture here, even if it means that nice guys like Ezra are put at a disadvantage.

Posted by: michaelterra | November 10, 2009 8:23 PM | Report abuse

There's a reality show on A&E called "First 48" which follows homicide investigators around during the initial two days of a case. I'm always struck by how little real detective work has in common with the scientific approach on CSI or even the formal sort of questioning on Law & Order.

The main source of information often seems to be friendly relationships the detectives have with well-connected members of the community. People who just happen to be "in-the-know" and genuinely *like* the investigators on a personal level. Once they find a witness or suspect, their tactics usually revolve around building a rapport so that the person *wants* to spill the beans.

Being good at the job is more dependent on excellent interpersonal skills than deductive abilities. Really fascinating.

Posted by: Bill_Casey | November 10, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

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