'The Audit' Needs to Confront its Past
A reader brings to my attention a refreshing but incomplete article in CJR Daily's Audit section, by its new editor/writer Dean Starkman. The article, "Dang, That's Good," praises the Wall Street Journal for its Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles on options backdating.
He is right -- it was a great series. But Dean makes no mention of the Audit's attacks on the options backdating coverage, including the Journal's, at the time they were published. A reader raised that point over the weekend, in a comment here and at the Audit.
The article and the comment can be found here.
Dean says as follows:
He's right. At the time the Audit--under its eccentric pro-corporate editor Mark Mitchell-- was whacking the Journal for its options backdating coverage, "why have the Audit?" crossed my mind.
The series was smart, effective, original, and took institutional, as well as individual, courage. And while Pulitzers are only one measure of the health of a paper, work at this level must be recognized. Otherwise, why have The Audit?
Reading the above, you'd never know that the Audit was actually a major voice against the options backdating coverage when it really mattered--when the Journal was sticking its neck out by publishing those stories. It is a low-risk proposition to praise a series that just got a Pulitzer, and gratuitous (and fairly meaningless) to pile on with 20-20 hindsight after the champagne has flowed.
The Audit's two articles on the backdating coverage (here and here) were notable in that they were not the slightest bit well-informed. I was sympathetic with the Audit's view the options coverage was overblown, yet the articles seemed naive and ill-informed in the extreme.
I chastised the Audit for its options coverage-coverage (see here and here), as did University of California economics professor Brad DeLong and blogger Daniel Gross.
The headline of the first Audit piece was "Where's the thief? The 'Options Scandal' Is a Dud." Note the scare quotes. The second piece lamented the "increasingly hysterical coverage of a supposed 'scandal.'"
Among other things, the Audit criticized the Journal for including a graphic showing companies being investigated by the SEC. It made the goofy comment that being probed by the SEC "no more makes you guilty of corporate malfeasance than having your block patrolled by a beat cop makes you guilty of kicking the tar out of your neighbor." No one said it did, but a federal probe is a significant red flag and is not analogous to "having your block patrolled by a beat cop."
The Audit never acknowledged that its coverage was the dud, and not the "supposed 'scandal.'"
There's nothing wrong with being off-base now and then. But this was not an isolated event. The Audit, under its former editor Mitchell, made a series of embarrassing goofs on a number of subjects. (See articles tagged "CJR Daily" in this blog.)
(After this item appeared, Mitchell later became a PR factotum for Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, tasked with attacking journalists critical of Byrne. See this subsequent item.)
It's great that Dean is apparently turning over a new leaf. But I think he would do well to grapple with the site's past misjudgments, rather than acting as if they didn't exist. He could have started with a forthright mea culpa, or at least acknowledged the elephant in the room -- which is the the Audit's past poor coverage of this issue and others.
And as I've previously pointed out, Dean would show he is moving in the right direction by removing links to stock market conspiracy websites, which personally attack journalists and
were a fixation of former editor Mitchell.
© 2007 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
Wall Street Versus America was published by Penguin USA on April 6.
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