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Media Maneuvers: Curses!

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The Wall Street Journal may be setting its sights on becoming more of a general-interest newspaper, but right now, it's dominating one of the biggest business stories around: the trials and tribulations of Lehman Brothers Inc.

In a page A1 scoop on June 3, the WSJ broke the news that the investment bank, which has been battling persistent rumors of its pending demise, is considering raising $3 billion to $4 billion in new capital to shore up its balance sheet. The story not only sent Lehman Brothers shares down nearly 10%, but was quickly followed by a slew of media outlets -- Reuters, Portfolio.com, BusinessWeek.com, to name just a few.

The WSJ itself further advanced the ball the next day with two more pieces, reporting that Lehman might look overseas for fresh capital and speculating on possible buyers.

Against this backdrop, we were eager to see how the WSJ's archrival, The New York Times, would come back on the Lehman story on June 4 after suffering a clear defeat the day before. Well, come back it did -- with a story the Journal had covered back on, let's see, May 23.

That's right. The Times on June 4 devoted a large swath of its business section front page to the "battle" between short-seller David Einhorn and Lehman CFO Erin Callan -- a story that had already run nearly two weeks earlier, not only in the WSJ, but on Portfolio.com and on Thomson Reuters ' HedgeWorld. (Portfolio.com had the best headline of the bunch: "An Einhorn in Her Side." ) The pieces all followed a speech by Einhorn to an investor conference on May 21 in which he took Callan to task for how Lehman values certain assets.

The media, of course, loves a good fight, especially when it's between two relatively young and photogenic financial types who happen to be of the opposite sex. Seizing on that, the Times ran a particularly ridiculous piece of art with its story, depicting Einhorn and Callan as contenders for the heavyweight title or some similarly ridiculous prize.

Such silliness could have been forgiven if the story had new information in it, which it didn't -- a fact made all the more glaring by the WSJ's big scoop a day earlier. The only thing we learn in the piece is that its author, Louise Story, scored an interview with Einhorn a few days earlier, which is hardly a coup, since, as the story notes, he's busily promoting his new book, "Fooling Some of the People all of the Time" (Amazon sales rank: 160).

Story gained some notoriety in 2005, when she wrote a controversial page 1 piece for the Times asserting that "many" women at elite colleges were planning to eschew careers for motherhood but failed to cite any actual data to back her claim. ("She deserves a week in the stockades," Slate.com media critic Jack Shafer wrote at the time.) Story is now covering Wall Street for the paper, while Landon Thomas Jr. -- a regular subject in this column -- is reportedly heading off to London. He hasn't left our side of the pond yet, but the story he delivered on June 3 makes us realize just how much we're going to miss him when he does.

"Call it the curse of Dick Grasso," announces the lead of the piece, which reports on the increasing likelihood that the former New York Stock Exchange chief will get to keep his $185 million paycheck. While Grasso appears to be sitting pretty, the story explains, his two main nemeses, Eliot Spitzer and Jimmy Cayne, "face years in exile." It's a reversal "that underscores ... how quickly new villains replace old ones on Wall Street," the story intones.

You don't say!

OK, we know Thomas is just trying to be cute and doesn't really believe that Grasso rubbed his shiny bald head and put a hex on Spitzer that caused the former governor of New York to seek out call girls. Or that he gave Cayne the evil eye, causing him to lose his fortune when Bear Stearns Cos. imploded. But the story labors to pass off the most obvious observation -- that time can change everything on Wall Street -- as deep insight. Perhaps for the Times, it is.
When it hands out the black hats and white hats, it rarely leaves much room for gray. -- Yvette Kantrow