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The Real Scandal of Moneyhoneygate

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Excellent column by David Carr in today’s New York Times on the Maria Bartiromo / Citigroup brouhaha, a subject that, I’ll admit, I’ve had a hard time mustering indignation over. (Short version: the CNBC anchor, a.k.a., “The Money Honey,” was found to have accepted numerous speaking and travel requests from companies she covers, including many for Citigroup, one of whose execs was canned for liberally booking a corporate jet for her.)

My cardinal rule of media criticism has always been that if you find a lot of journalists wringing their hands over the high-profile scandal of one of their peers, they’re probably shifting attention away from a more disturbing, business-as-usual practice endemic to the profession. Carr agrees, at least here, saying that CNBC, which has defended Bartiromo’s conduct, has been a booster of the business it covers, jets or no jets: “CNBC has roughly the same relationship to Wall Street that ‘Entertainment Tonight’ has to Hollywood: boosterish, gossipy and more than a little starry-eyed.”

(OK, there is one curious segue I have to point out in Carr’s story. “[O]ther Citigroup executives were bumped from a plane bound home from the Far East while Mr. Thomson and Ms. Bartiromo flew back together,” Carr writes, adding, “This should not be about gender or sex.” Thereby, of course, making the story about gender and sex. Nicely played!)

The elements of Moneyhoneygate that make people’s eyebrows stand up–the corporate jetting, the fancy getaways, etc.–are the least worrisome practically. Even if CNBC hadn’t reimbursed Citigroup for the flights, I don’t believe that, in themselves, the airtime and star treatment would have affected Bartiromo’s coverage of Citigroup. If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s the ingratitude of journalists: feed us all the free dinners you want, we’ll still gladly turn around and bite you in the tuchas when we’re feeling peckish.

The real problems creep in when reporters, editors and whole news organizations get overly close and chummy with the people they cover, which doesn’t take questionable jet trips to accomplish. And not only do news organizations not forbid this, they actively encourage it, in the name of “source development” and “access.” This is a problem in any news field–being pals with sources can defang political coverage, for instance, and yet if Washington reporters stand aloof from the people they cover, they risk getting scooped by their friendlier rivals. It’s a special problem in business news, where there’s particular pressure to show the audience that you’re on their side, which is to say, pro-business, pro-market-gains, pro-everyone-making-a-buck. (A better analogy than Entertainment Tonight is ESPN, whose successful, rowdy bonhomie CNBC has long imitated: in business news as in sports, there’s audience pressure to prove you’re a true fan of the game.)

All of which is why it is admirable, or, at least, fitting, that CNBC has defended Bartiromo for doing what, after all, is essential to its success and brand identity. Scandals blow over eventually, but by taking its stand, CNBC is asserting its position as the official insider network of American business. And however much media critics may whine, that’s how you make money, honey.

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