04/04/2012 11:13 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

William Bryan Jennings and the Bonfire of the Inanities

I've been thinking about Sherman McCoy lately. You remember him -- the wealthy, WASPy bond trader and self-proclaimed Master of the Universe at the center of Tom Wolfe's romp through the late 1980s, The Bonfire of the Vanities? The specter of McCoy and his tortuous fall from grace has been haunting the media's coverage of finance for more than two decades now, summoned by hapless reporters whenever they want to convey that some super-slick denizen of Wall Street is too big for his britches and is headed for a much-deserved fall.

These days, the media is happy to label just about anyone who works on or near Wall Street as a Master of the Universe, especially if that person has done something to offend. Indeed, in recent weeks, the Master of the Universe moniker has popped up to mock everyone from Goldman Sachs quitter Greg Smith to alleged "Stabby Banker" William Bryan Jennings to Andrew Schiff, the finance flack who whined to Bloomberg about getting by on $350,000 a year. But what exactly does the phrase mean? Does calling someone a Sherman McCoy -- or a Gordon Gekko, or even a Michael Milken -- tell us anything anymore? And why does the media reflexively reach back to the '80s when looking for Wall Street caricatures? Has finance produced no interesting characters -- fictional or real -- in the past 25 years?

Reuters, for one, thought it had found the real McCoy in Jennings, the Morgan Stanley bond chief charged with a hate crime in the stabbing of a New York cabbie of Egyptian descent. (Hence his blogospheric handle, Stabby Banker.) "At first glance, Jennings seems an incarnation of Wolfe's 'Master of the Universe' stereotype," Reuters cooed. "He is in the bond business. His two children attend one of the best private schools around. His home is a set piece for the good life, with sisal carpets, marble floors and state-of-the-art appliances." And, of course, like McCoy, he's arrested after fleeing the scene of a crime he allegedly committed against a poor member of a minority.

But, alas, Reuters cannot make the analogy stick. "But while Wall Street's Masters of the Universe certainly still do exist, Jennings apparently wasn't one of them, according to several colleagues," the piece informs, later adding:

"In the world capital of ego-driven alphas, Jennings didn't come off as one. He was polite and well-liked, according to Morgan Stanley colleagues. He also was a 'Morgan monk,' utterly devoted to the firm and his job, with little personal life outside work. He was one of those guys, colleagues say, who bled Morgan Stanley."

So let's get this straight: Because Jennings was "polite and well-liked" and devoted to his work and his firm, he's not the real McCoy? Well, here's a news flash -- Sherman McCoy isn't the real Sherman McCoy either, or at least the Sherman McCoy of the media's mind. Go back and read Bonfire. When we first meet McCoy, the self-proclaimed Master of the Universe is down on the floor, trying desperately and pathetically to leash his squirming dog -- a dachshund! -- as his disapproving wife looks on. When he makes it out of his Park Avenue apartment, wearing "his country outfit," he immediately feels dressed down by an immaculately suited-up neighbor, whose greeting "conveyed the message 'You and your clothes and your animal are letting down our new mahagony-paneled elevator.'" Things get worse outside, where it's raining, the dog is lurching, and McCoy, tangled in the leash, becomes so discombobulated he mistakenly phones his wife instead of his mistress.

"Ego-driven alpha"? Master of the Universe? Clearly, the real Sherman McCoy is master of nothing (except perhaps of bond trading), as far from the slick-haired Gordon Gekko of the public's and Oliver Stone's imagination as his dachshund is from Rin Tin Tin. The media never quite got that about Sherman -- hence the outcry over the casting of a mild-mannered Tom Hanks, rather than, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as McCoy in the movie version of Wolfe's novel. Ironically, our irony-obsessed media has failed to see the irony of the Master of the Universe phrase.

Over time the media has conflated McCoy with Gekko, discarding Wolfe's irony. Why not? It's more convenient that way, leaving everyone free to conjure up Sherman McCoys whenever it stumbles across a Wall Streeter -- a banker, a trader, an analyst, a flack -- it dislikes. It's bad enough to traffic in stereotypes. It's worse to get them wrong.

Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.