For journalists, bad news can be good news. And so, in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse last September, as the world’s economy teetered, an all-star roster of business journalists—Roger Lowenstein, Joe Nocera and Bethany McLean—raced to shop book proposals to chronicle the epochal events unfolding on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C. On the morning of September 23, 2008, Andrew Ross Sorkin, the New York Times’ then-31-year-old star financial reporter, made the rounds to publishers with his agent and his proposal, which he’d pulled together over a weekend. “It was like Paulson’s original tarp proposal,” Sorkin tells me, referring to the former Treasury secretary. “His was three pages, mine was three pages.”
We’re sitting at the Lyric Diner on Third Avenue on a Monday morning. Sorkin’s Tuesday Times column is due in a few hours, but, as usual, he’s way behind, and later I learn that he missed it entirely and his editors had to scramble.
His excuse is that he’s got a book to promote. Too Big to Fail, for which Viking paid a reported $700,000 and which debuted at No. 4 on the Times’ best-seller list, is a nearly minute-by-minute account of the financial crisis as observed through the eyes of the clashing Wall Street CEOs who drove their investment banks into the abyss and the government regulators who watched powerless from the sidelines. The book has become a kind of media sensation. In a review for the Financial Times, John Gapper declared that Sorkin had written this generation’s Barbarians at the Gate. Charlie Rose compared Sorkin to Bob Woodward. Vanity Fair published an excerpt and held a book party at Graydon Carter’s Monkey Bar (“Part of the package we put together for him,” Carter says). Three weeks ago, as the book landed in stores, Sorkin blanketed the airwaves, beginning with an October 19 appearance on the Today show, followed by multiple stops on CNBC and his second appearance in a month on Charlie Rose.
“I’m very surprised by the reaction,” Sorkin explains, as we sit over bowls of oatmeal at a rear table. “But it’s good! I can’t complain.” Despite the highs of the past week, Sorkin looks exhausted. He’s eschewed his usual Ted Baker suits—“You have to dress like them,” he says of his cast of sources—for jeans, a striped blue shirt, and a blazer. At a particularly loud moment in our interview, when he picks up my digital recorder and holds it to his mouth, he looks like a CEO dictating notes to himself.
Sorkin, who started at the Times as an 18-year-old intern, and who founded and edits the Times’ influential DealBook blog and writes a weekly front-page business-section column under the DealBook flag, has cultivated an A-list of Wall Street power players as his sources, a remarkable feat considering that many of these men are twice his age and he writes for a paper that has traditionally been a middle-of-the-pack player in business journalism.
It’s hard to overstate Sorkin’s centrality as an information hub on Wall Street these days. DealBook is a high-level Wall Street message board. By now, it’s a self-reinforcing cycle: Everyone on Wall Street talks to Sorkin, which makes everyone need to talk to Sorkin. “You never know when you need to go back to the favor bank,” one senior investment banker explained. “Why would a Hank Paulson or a Jamie Dimon or a John Mack pick up the phone and talk to him?” asks one head of communications for a financial institution covered by Sorkin. “They want to hear what everyone else is saying.”
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.”
While Sorkin basks in Wall Street’s attention, his image at the Times is more conflicted. His rise at the paper was jet-propelled—he was a kind of legend before he was 20. And he was one of the first at the paper to realize the centrality of the web and also one of the first to realize that on the web, a journalist’s personal brand can sometimes be more valuable than that of the institution that employs him. With his DealBook e-mail, read by some 200,000 people, plus the blog, with 2.5 million unique monthly visitors, plus the weekly column, breaking news scoops, television appearances, and 60,000 Twitter followers, he is one of the Times’ most visible players. Media ubiquity is a strategic decision. In the cubicle jungle of the Times, he’s an entrepreneur. “All of it is self-reinforcing,” Sorkin says.