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Andrew Ross Sorkin’s ‘Ick’ Moment

Andrew Ross Sorkin in front of a projected pattern that reads 'Digitas NewFront
Andrew Ross Sorkin in 2012. Photo courtesy Digitas Photos

I am not a big fan of the congenitally attention-seeking journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, but until now, his personal highlight reel did not include anything that made me utter the word “ick” out loud.

Sorkin co-hosts CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” is a New York Times columnist and edits The Times’ DealBook blog, for which he is also the principal writer. This last venue is where things went revoltingly wrong earlier this week, when Sorkin wrote an appalling post about how an acrimonious divorce has captured attention on Wall Street.

If Sorkin had an editor worthy of the title, that person might - just might - have questioned whether a divorce case was even worth reporting in The Times’ high-profile blog about corporate news; in that case, Sorkin’s column might have been deservedly spiked. (That’s journalist jargon for “tossed in the trash.”) Or the editor might have pointed out that without more reporting and better balance, Sorkin’s observations would come across as both trashy and trite, and would make one of the paper’s star reporters look ridiculous.

The problem with stars is that they can get accustomed to being told that everything they do is awesome, even when it isn’t. Perhaps someone did try to warn Sorkin away from his mistake, but my guess is that Sorkin climbed out on this limb unaccompanied.

Sorkin led his column by quoting a memo that Richard B. Handler, chief executive of the investment bank Jefferies, sent to the firm’s clients last week. Handler said he and Jefferies Chairman Brian Friedman volunteered to take a drug test to counter claims by the estranged spouse of Sage Kelly, a managing director in the Jefferies health care investment banking group, that Kelly had joined his co-workers in abusing an assortment of illegal drugs. Handler wrote that every senior officer in the health care group joined in taking the drug tests, and that no illegal drugs were found.

Sorkin noted that Christina Kelly, who is involved in a nasty fight over property and child custody with her husband, had failed a drug test, and that her husband submitted a video showing her snorting cocaine as part of the custody case. This boring, nasty-divorce-as-usual detail was accompanied by the more attention-getting, and entirely gratuitous, information that Christina Kelly also claimed that her husband “instigated a sexual encounter with the girlfriend of a client, Marc Beer, and Marc had sexual intercourse with me.” Sorkin observed that Beer, the CEO of Aegerion Pharmaceuticals, has said the incident never happened, and that other Jefferies employees denied ever using drugs with Kelly.

Sorkin’s entire column is therefore based on the unsubstantiated court filings of an embittered and self-interested spouse. Yet somewhere in this no man’s land between gossip and fantasy, Sorkin thought he saw grounds to assert that Christina Kelly’s claims “seemed to confirm the worst suspicions about an industry that has long been portrayed as outlandish in films like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’”

There have many well-documented instances of bad behavior by people in the financial industry - just as in any industry, including politics, law enforcement, religion and journalism. News reporters, for one, are not legendary teetotalers. Most of the time, we get our information from people who publicly acknowledge, or who prove in court, that they participated in or were subjected to the offensive conduct at issue. In the Jefferies case, Sorkin reports that the people named by Christina Kelly denied her claims. How does this “confirm the worst suspicions” of anyone? It confirms nothing except Sorkin’s proclivities to brandish stereotypes and, evidently, to believe them, which is not what makes a great journalist.

Sorkin also engaged in a ridiculous exercise in Monday-morning quarterbacking about Handler’s decision to send a memo to clients to defend the reputations of his firm and its employees, including Sage Kelly.

“There’s something authentic and admirable in Mr. Handler’s reaction,” Sorkin allowed. “…But his passion may be overwhelming his logic in this case. He has ruled out the possibility of acknowledging a problem at the firm or even the chance that Mr. Kelly had hidden demons; he denies them outright. Yet Mr. Kelly has acknowledged recreational drug use in the past.” The current United States president and his two immediate predecessors have also acknowledged recreational drug use in the past; these admissions were not widely considered evidence of hidden demons.

It is Sorkin’s logic, not Handler’s, which is overwhelmed. Of course Handler stood up for his firm and its workers. He sees them every day. If their work is substandard, his firm will suffer, just as it will suffer if it is unjustly maligned in court pleadings - or in The New York Times. Handler’s job is not to examine each employee for “hidden demons.” It is to examine their ability to perform their functions ably and with integrity, and to maintain a suitable workplace environment. A real-world chief executive knows these things. A business journalist should know these things too, but this can be difficult for a journalist who confuses his access to important people with being important himself.

This is not the first ill-advised thing Sorkin has said or written, nor is it likely to be the last. He has previously apologized for insinuating that journalist Glenn Greenwald should have been arrested for his relationship with Edward Snowden, and he also apologized for saying that there are no successful unionized companies. He was far off the mark, as well, in passing judgment on what he viewed as Steve Jobs’ failure to be sufficiently charitable, a judgment he rendered about a week before Jobs died of cancer.

Though I think he is much less wise than he apparently thinks he is, I can cut Sorkin some slack. Anyone who offers commentary on a regular basis is going to hit some sour notes sometimes, myself included. Even when something you write is not demonstrably wrong or patently foolish, a lot of people will think it is.

Yet I learned long ago that part of maturing as a journalist is to realize that real people, with real lives and sensitivities, are affected by what you write. Sometimes you write it anyway because it is your job. But if something you write makes an ordinary reader recoil, feeling as though they were just lured into viewing something like a celebrity’s stolen private photographs, you have wandered away from journalism and into something much less noble.

I am an ordinary DealBook reader, and my reaction to Sorkin’s piece on Jefferies was “ick.” Need I say more?

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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