As if we needed more evidence that F. Scott Fitzgerald's line about there being no second acts in American life is dead wrong, out of the ashes of the dot-com bust comes Henry Blodget.
Blodget, you'll recall, was a fixture on financial TV news in the days when internet stocks were soaring. With his touting of ultimately worthless stocks, some of which he ripped in private, the former Merrill Lynch analyst cost investors serious amounts of money, raising many ethical questions about his profession and raising the ire of New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
Blodget is back, with a brand-new job: covering the Martha Stewart trial for Slate. Blodget's resurfacing broaches a whole new set of ethical questions, this time on the journalistic front. Why would Slate risk its reputation by putting such an infamous figure on its payroll? Can the reporting of someone who is understood by many as having betrayed the public trust, albeit in a different profession, be trusted?
Slate editor Jacob Weisberg has said that Blodget's insider expertise in the securities industry makes him a perfect fit to cover the case, as Stewart's broker, also formerly of Merrill Lynch, has been charged as well. Weisberg has said that any conflicts of interest would be disclosed.
While this all makes perfect sense, it misses an issue more fundamental than conflicts of interest: the basic issue of trust, on which journalism is built. Top news organizations have been way too eager in recent years to hire infamous figures, from both inside and outside the profession, to do editorial work. It took little time for disgraced Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle to get picked by the New York Daily News. More recently, Esquire considered hiring Jayson Blair to review Shattered Glass, the current film about fellow fabulist Stephen Glass, who turned the pages of The New Republic into a fiction magazine.
Such moves trigger instant publicity for publications but, in addition to calling into question their seriousness about trust, they're left wide open to cries of hypocrisy. After all, what journalist hasn't plundered the backgrounds of important public appointments or hires, looking for just the kind of episode that unraveled Blodget's career?
To conduct this kind of research, Slate need only look into its own archives, where there are more than 15 stories that reference Blodget. That coverage, to be sure, was some of the more level-headed out there. Yet the most favorable portrait of the analyst came in a May 2002 piece by Rob Walker. Basically, the article takes issue with the villainous light in which the investigation was painting Blodget. Walker writes: "I still don't buy the idea of Blodget as the great villain of the age: He's really a bit player, who was both created and destroyed by events way bigger than him."
Balanced? Sure. But certainly not the greatest of references for a new hire.