What are financial journalists good for, anyway? It's a question that has reared its head once again in the wake of the media brouhaha that followed the publication by gossip site Gawker.com of 950 pages of documents related to Mitt Romney's and Bain Capital LLC's investments. For those who may have missed it -- it came in the dog days of late August -- the Gawker data dump, or scoop, depending on your perspective, was quickly declared a nonevent by two journalists working for business news outlets: Dan Primack, at Fortune.com, who called the documents "worthless," and Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider, who wrote "that folks looking for a bombshell are going to be disappointed."
Their nonchalance -- and Primack's admission that he possessed the same documents but didn't think they were newsworthy -- got some of their colleagues in the more mainstream media into a lather. In addition to a Twitter spat between Marketplace's Heidi Moore and Primack over the latter's news judgment (a spat that, amazingly enough, was covered by The Huffington Post), The New York Observer ran a piece by Foster Kamer headlined "Gawker Exclusive Reveals Financial Journalists at Their Most Jaded." According to Kamer, "Besides the totality of the 'Bad Look, Sour Grapes Flavor' on display here," Primack's and Weisenthal's reaction "serves to further demonstrate a level of remove on the part of journalists who regularly come into ostensibly unsurprising information that would otherwise be relevant if not downright compelling to people who don't regularly come into contact with that kind of information. In other words: to the public, the entire reason for the existence of a fourth estate."
Ah, the public. Both Primack, who specializes in private equity and venture capital, and Weisenthal, who is obsessed with markets and what moves them, serve audiences who represent a small, specialized segment of the so-called public. This fact explains why they yawned at Gawker's Bain dump -- there was likely no news in it for their insidery readers -- and why the rest of the media is so irked by them. The argument against them goes something like this: They are uniquely qualified to explain private equity to the public but chose not to, undoubtedly because they've been corrupted by their sources. Even worse, they scoff at those, like Gawker, attempting to fill that role. As Gawker put it in a follow-up post: "Those who understand the operations of equity firms abdicate a responsibility to the public when they handwave away the details of stuff like those 950 pages of Bain files."
That idea was also touched upon by Kevin Roose, in a well-reasoned piece on the value of the documents on New York Magazine's Daily Intel blog: "Gawker's trove of documents could theoretically narrow the knowledge gap, if journalists who do understand how private equity works are willing to explain what it means (and why it's not an all-out scandal) to laymen, and if those laymen are patient enough to sit through the explanation." From where Roose sits, largely three groups understand Romney's investments: "those who work in the financial sector and those journalists who cover either private equity or the Romney campaign."
What's interesting about all this isn't what it says about the documents or the news judgment of Primack, Weisenthal or Gawker, but that it's coming when private equity has never been so frequently and closely covered by the media. Ever since Newt Gingrich labeled Romney a "vulture capitalist" during the Republican primaries, journalists of all stripes have been producing "explainers." Indeed, it's hard to open a newspaper or blog these days without bumping into one. While some of these stories have been cartoonish -- practitioners are portrayed as either asset strippers/corporate looters or as management magicians/job creators -- some offer valuable, straightforward analysis, such as The Wall Street Journal's look at the 77 investments Bain made during Romney's tenure, published during the New Hampshire primaries. At this point in the campaign, can we really say financial journalists have abdicated their responsibility to the public by not sharing their special knowledge with the rest of world?
Maybe the rest of the world doesn't want their knowledge -- a point Roose hints at in his piece. He notes that he could go on all day explaining why most things in the document dump aren't scandalous, but, he adds, "that would be boring, and you're probably already thinking of clicking over to TMZ for Prince Harry's naked photos." How can financial journalism compete with that?
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.