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Remembering Mark Pittman

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I was never much of a source for Mark Pittman. I'm not sure I ever told him anything that he didn't already know.

But some time last year he figured out that I was willing to criticize the financial services industry, or at least more willing than most members of Congress. He called me for comment, for instance, on the stunningly advantageous terms that lenders got in buying back stock warrants when they paid off TARP funds. I hadn't heard the first thing about it before his call, but he told me what he had found out and I said that really stinks. Mark got to include "congressional reaction" in his story, and I got national press for stating the obvious.

It was a fine arrangement.

I may not have been a source for him, but he was a great source for me. He took great pleasure in telling me what he had learned, and our conversations were highly entertaining. What made it so entertaining to talk with him was his irreverence for the financial industry, which was a refreshing contrast to the industry's self-reverence. He didn't have an angry, confrontational "Speak Truth To Power!" attitude towards the industry; he just saw them as grifters. Mark didn't see much difference between selling AAA-rated bonds backed by subprime mortgages and sending e-mails claiming to be African royalty in need of help transferring a fortune to a U.S. bank, and he was amused by the financial industry's pretensions that they were making a great contribution to our economy.

My conversations with Mark frequently informed my questions of witnesses at Financial Services Committee hearings. The more he liked my questions, the more he fed me information. Sometimes I felt like I was just a sockpuppet for Mark, but that was usually when I asked the best questions.

The financial crisis is a result of a failure of every institution of our democracy. Regulators failed. Congress failed. And the financial press failed abysmally. Mark was an exception. Mark's irreverence allowed him to see the crisis coming when other financial reporters accepted uncritically what the industry said. Mark's irreverence was what made him a great reporter.

I grieved when I heard that Mark died last week at the age of 52.

I will miss reading his stories. I will miss our telephone conversations. I will miss having Mark as a source of information for questions at Financial Services Committee hearings.

And I know that our democracy will be poorer for the loss of a great reporter.