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.