The war over Sorkin’s role at the Times escalated when the publicity rollout for his book began, stoked by a Keith Kelly story in the New York Post. On the book’s website, Sorkin included scanned copies of a “secret” ethics waiver Secretary Paulson obtained in order to negotiate with his former employer Goldman Sachs during the AIG bailout. The waiver became a locus of Goldman-Paulson conspiracy theories. To some staffers on the business desk and the paper’s investigative team, it seemed as if Sorkin were claiming credit for breaking the news of the waiver, whereas it had been first reported in an August 9 piece by Van Natta and Morgenson.
On the afternoon of October 22, Van Natta e-mailed Sorkin, who called him back. Both Van Natta and Sorkin declined to comment on the exchange, but according to multiple sources familiar with the events, Van Natta pressed him on where he first found out about the Paulson waiver and why he didn’t credit their reporting in his book. “When did you get the Paulson waiver?”
“Probably sometime in June?” Sorkin answered.
“Is this an inquisition?” Sorkin asked. “Don’t you trust me?”
“No, I don’t trust you,” Van Natta said. “I’m a reporter. I don’t trust anyone. When someone tells me something, I check it out.”
“Look,” Sorkin replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way. If it means that much to you, I’ll change it in the next edition.”
About 45 minutes later, Sorkin called Van Natta back from his cell phone.
“I just have to say, that was a really strange call.”
“I’m old-school,” Van Natta said.
Van Natta and Morgenson had obtained the waiver and call logs through Freedom of Information Act requests in June, according to Times sources. The issue is whether Sorkin had learned of the waiver through his own reporting or somehow found out from Van Natta and Morgenson and pursued their leads himself.
On October 30, Gawker reported that Sorkin said he had previously submitted requests for the calendars and the waiver, but they had been denied. Sorkin told me on November 4 that Gawker misquoted him and that he had submitted a request only for Paulson’s calendars, not the waiver. According to copies of Sorkin’s communications that I obtained through the FOIA, Sorkin submitted a request for Paulson’s calendar on June 1 but made no mention of the waiver. He identified himself in his letter to the Treasury Department as a “reporter for the New York Times” and requested the calendar for “news media purposes,” but did not mention he was writing a book. The June 1 request was denied because Sorkin had failed to offer to pay the processing fee. The records show that Sorkin didn’t submit a request for the Paulson waiver until the afternoon of July 28, after he had learned from O’Brien earlier that morning that he would not be able to borrow Paulson’s call logs from Morgenson and Van Natta, who had just completed a draft of their story for the paper. O’Brien happened to mention the waiver, and told him about the story Van Natta and Morgenson were working on. “I also told him that my reporters on the piece, Don and Gretchen, would probably be uncomfortable simply handing over documents to him that they had spent a lot of time and energy to find, analyze, and report on,” O’Brien told me by e-mail. Sorkin told me on November 4 by phone from London, where he was promoting Too Big to Fail, that he didn’t learn of the waiver from O’Brien, but that a source he wouldn’t name—presumably Paulson or his flack Michele Davis—had first told him about the waiver in early June, and that in the course of reporting his book, he had gotten access to the information in Paulson’s calendars and the waiver, and the later document request was simply to confirm what he already knew. The accusation that Sorkin would essentially steal information from more-traditional reporters for what would become a best-selling book—and that he would counter the charge by claiming that he got the information from one of his vaunted high-level sources—cuts to the heart of the tension.
Sorkin’s allies dismiss the flap, saying his talent is just what the paper needs in this tough new world for newspapers. “He’s a reporter, he breaks stories,” Times business columnist Joe Nocera says. “I feel strongly he’s providing a good and valuable service to the newspaper, and whatever is going on at the Times, he doesn’t deserve it. It ain’t right.”
Sorkin told me that, in his mind, the matter is resolved. “I thought the argument didn’t make sense from the moment I heard it,” he said. “It’s not an accurate argument.”