Bear Skin: How the New York Times Scooped the Wall Street Journal

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET

Kudos to The New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin for scoring one of the biggest deal scoops in ages last week. As most deal junkies know, Sorkin broke the news last Monday that J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. would up its bid for Bear Stearns Cos. in a story the Times played prominently on page 1. Unlike many scoops these days, it was strictly a print affair; it did not appear on the Times' Web site Sunday night before showing up in the paper's Monday edition.

That decision indicated a fair amount of certainty by the Times that it was alone on this story and was in little danger of being beaten by its (temporarily) downtown rival, The Wall Street Journal. It guessed right. The WSJ's front page Monday was starkly devoid of any Bear Stearns news, as was the rest of the paper. The omission was glaring, given how effectively the WSJ had covered Bear the previous week.

And it did not go unnoticed by the media punditocracy. Over at Slate, Jack Shafer pinned the Journal's "getting trounced on the month's biggest business story" squarely on Rupert Murdoch, who is keen on broadening the paper's focus beyond business news.

"By softening the Journal's editorial focus, isn't he making this sort of humiliation inevitable?" Shafer asks. "Imagine being the editor on the receiving end of a phone call from the rotten old bastard, demanding to know why his paper got creamed on a beat that it is supposed to own."

Indeed, the WSJ's focus did seem rather "soft" the day the Bear news broke, with much of the front page given over to a wandering thumb sucker on the future of government regulation. Fascinating. But we wonder what other factors contributed to the paper getting so badly beaten. If Sorkin's sources were from the Bear camp, it's not hard to imagine them freezing out the WSJ as payback for its front-page story last fall about Jimmy Cayne ducking into the men's room to smoke a doobie. Another theory: In a world where reporters are no longer expected to simply report, but to opine, who has time to actually break news? The WSJ's Deal Journal blog, for instance, focuses on delivering endless commentary, not scoops. Of course, Sorkin himself has a column and blogs.

Not all media observers were impressed with the Times' Bear coverage, however. The folks over at the The Audit, Columbia Journalism Review's business news scold, noted in one piece last week that the paper had indeed scored a major scoop about the renegotiated deal. But that same day, weirdly enough, it awarded Sorkin a "debit" for failing to point out, in an earlier story, just how evil Bear Stearns really is: "We're told nowhere here that Bear is one of those financial institutions that manufactured this credit crisis, which is to say it manufactured its own 'stunning downfall,'" The Audit whines. "It was brought down by a 'run on the bank' caused by its own actions, not some irrational panic, as the Times implies." The Audit also faults Sorkin for letting "a certain admiration for the roguish Bear seep into his copy," when he describes the firm's culture as "cigar-chomping" and "suspender-wearing." And it implies that Sorkin should more closely read the work of his Times colleague, Gretchen Morgenson, to learn what a truly dreadful place Bear really is. Apparently, the media deities up at Columbia would prefer all journalists to refer to the firm as "the odious Bear Stearns," as they labeled it last week. So much for objectivity.

The Times wasn't the only one obsessed with Bear last week. New York magazine feted J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon on its cover for making "the biggest Wall Street deal of them all." The accompanying story is largely a rehash of Dimon's career, with some fresh quotes about the Bear deal up top. But its premise that Dimon had just pulled off the deal -- or steal -- of the century, looked shaky Monday morning, when Dimon agreed to pay five times more than planned. Oops. Later that day, the story's author, Duff McDonald, posted an item on New York's Web site, reassuring readers that Dimon remains a hero; he may be lining the pockets of Bear's gamblers with a bit more cash, but at least the firm won't go bankrupt. "So think of it this way," McDonald writes. "At the same time [Dimon's] saving his own skin, he might even be saving yours." Thanks.