On September 22, a week after Lehman Brothers said it would file for bankruptcy, a rumor surfaced on DealBreaker about the company's CEO, Richard Fuld, who had yet to make a public statement. "Dick Fuld had audacity to use the Lehman gym [on Sunday] and got punched in the face," said the report, which the Website had received from a tipster. Was it true? "Highly unlikely," the Website said. Still, they published it, because why not? The rumor was a balm to the disgruntled Lehman workers who lost their jobs and savings when Lehman filed for bankruptcy. Anyway, it was just funny gossip.
But a few weeks later, the gossip became a news story, when Vicky Ward, a journalist for Vanity Fair and a CNBC commentator, brought it up during Fuld's hearing in front of Congress. "I hadn't meant to get into the whole punching thing," she said later, but she was incensed after another commentator said Fuld seemed "contrite."
“[W]hen I heard that, I was about to jump out of my chair,” she said later.
“I thought it was appalling,” she said on CNBC, adding that she thought Fuld seemed to be trying to dodge blame. “I’m with the guy who apparently the day before Barclays announced they were coming in [to buy Lehman], and Lehman had already filed for bankruptcy, went over to him in the gym and punched him, knocked him out cold. And frankly having watched this I’d have done the same.”
The show’s host broke in. “Have you confirmed that?” she said, about the punching.
“Yeah, I’ve heard it twice,” Ward said. “Two very senior sources, one incredibly senior source,” she said.
Thus "confirmed," the news spread across the news-media galaxy. The Daily News referenced the story, citing CNBC, as did London's Daily Telegraph. Time magazine reported it. And Gawker translated it for the public gleefully: Fuld “got himself knocked da fuck out at the company gym.” None of the reports contained a response from Fuld.
We asked about Ward's sourcing. "I’d been told it that morning," Ward told us later. "I was like, You’ve got to be joking … I spoke to a second person who I knew, which again made me think, Christ, if they’re saying this, Jesus … These are quite serious people. It wouldn’t make sense for something like that (to be made up).”
But according to Fuld's people, it was: "It's absolutely untrue," said a spokesperson now representing Lehman in bankruptcy court. "It never happened."
Alex Greenberg, general manager of the Lehman fitness center, backed them up. “The statement that he was punched is not true,” he said, adding that I was the first person to ask. “It’s a matter of fact that he has not visited the club since the bankruptcy. We’re not even open on Sundays.” The knockout was said to have occurred on Sunday, September 21.
In the meantime, the CEO-got-punched story has turned into its own little subgenre. Recently, a similar rumor circulated that Alan Schwartz, the former CEO of the dismantled Bear Stearns, had also been smacked down by an employee.
“When I heard that,” Ward says, “I thought, this is getting out of hand.”