Still, part of Sorkin’s problem at the Times is that he’s a new sort of creature at an essentially conservative institution, albeit one that desperately needs new models. He’s not a Timesman, exactly. He’s his own creation, and he doesn’t genuflect to Times traditions.
In these dark days for newspapers, Sorkin, with his un-Timesian public face, unorthodox methods, and precocious success, has become a flashpoint for some of his colleagues. At bottom, they see him as far too cozy with his sources. In a profession that tends, with religious fervor, to draw bright lines and stay behind them, Sorkin seems to cross back and forth without a care. While he has written critically about the financial mandarins he covers, a fawning quality can ooze into his prose that some other Timespeople find unbecoming. “Over at the power table is Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, or should I call you the man who can do no wrong?” (December 30, 2007) … “Trying to defend Stephen A. Schwarzman, Wall Street’s whipping boy of the moment, seems like a lose-lose proposition … But hey, somebody has got to go to bat for Mr. Schwarzman. Might as well be me” (July 29, 2007) … Or the second time the word subprime appears in his column, two months before Bear Stearns blew up, when credit and real-estate markets had already begun their steep nosedive. “I know many of you aren’t in a party mood,” Sorkin wrote. “Things were going great until summer, when the subprime mortgage thing really took us down a notch—and ruined more than a few golf games.”
(Detractors also mention stories Sorkin hasn’t written. Earlier this year, Sorkin was too busy to write a critical series on private-equity companies like Cerberus and the Blackstone Group, firms he championed during the boom and about which he had deep knowledge. The editors had to find other reporters to do it.)
Some of his antagonists in the newsroom wonder what, in the end, his privileged access is in the service of. “It’s the Jon Stewart question,” one senior Times staffer said, referencing Stewart’s memorable takedown of CNBC’s pre-meltdown boosterism. The squawking, which is loudest among the reporters on the business staff and not among higher-ups, has lately gotten louder, and meaner. As Sorkin’s career has burgeoned, he’s developed another audience of close readers: his colleagues, who comb the column for evidence of favor-trading. In conversations with me, several compared Sorkin’s relationship with the Wall Street elite to disgraced former Times reporter Judith Miller’s alliance with Bush-administration officials peddling bogus intelligence in support of the Iraq War. “She got too close to her sources,” a veteran Times staffer told me. “It was disastrously wrong and we let our readers down. This is the financial equivalent of that.” The analogy seems slightly strained. But certainly, Sorkin’s sources, the ones who have often been treated with kid gloves in his column, are the very actors in the executive suites who triggered the collapse, and closeness inevitably distorts reporting. Sorkin’s critics at the Times say that this effect weakened the paper’s financial coverage during the bubble. But access is one of the places where scoops come from—the career of legendary Times columnist James Reston, among many others, is testament to that. It’s a complicated balance in any newsroom.
Sorkin has heard these charges of access journalism before, and he dismisses them. “I think to the extent I’ve been able to get inside the room, it’s a function of hopefully coming to the table and being fair and open,” he says, “but also coming to the table and being sufficiently skeptical, but not cynical.” He adds that many of his sources hate what he writes.
Two weeks ago, these tensions spilled into public view in an article in the New York Post that reported that Sorkin had failed in his book to credit an August 9 front-page article by veteran investigative reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Gretchen Morgenson, a pair of journalists long known for their aggressive style. Morgenson is an especially fierce critic of Wall Street’s excesses and often draws the ire of Sorkin’s high-level cast. Van Natta and Morgenson, according to sources, suspected Sorkin of piggybacking on their reporting, perhaps after being tipped off by business editor Larry Ingrassia, who is a Sorkin champion, and following their tracks in order to obtain crucial details for his book. Executive editor Bill Keller and managing editor Jill Abramson moved to quell the dispute, but it still simmers. Keller is effusive in praise of Sorkin, while acknowledging some of the issues. “Andrew may seem like a new phenomenon,” he wrote in an e-mail, “but at heart he’s a classic beat reporter. He develops real inside sources, he works them relentlessly, and they tell him stuff because a) they regard him as essential reading, and b) he treats them fairly.”