Juicy op-ed. But should it have run?

The New York Times hosted a scathing resignation letter from a Goldman Sachs executive. But was publishing it the right thing to do?

I devoured every word of The New York Times Op-Ed by Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs executive, who evidently used the paper as the vehicle of his resignation. Juicy stuff, and potentially damaging to the firm at a highly charged time.

I have enormous sympathy for the content of Smith's claims - that the values he signed up for were not upheld, and that the culture of greed outpaced its focus on client service. I want these firms to pay attention, and to work to be better citizens and servants of their clients. I want them to stop being so damned arrogant.

But the editor inside me can't help but ask, did the Times do the right thing in publishing it?

If this missive had crossed my editorial desk, I would have taken a pass. I would have told Mr. Smith to take a week and write another one, once he had actually given notice. To calm down, and to think. And I would give him some notes.

1. The content positively seethes with "gotcha" phraseology and a kind of hyper-adrenalined egocentrism. It reminds me of Jerry Maguire's mission statement in the epoynymous film. The movie has a happy ending, but only because Jerry ultimately realized that he was the one that needed to change. What have you learned, Mr. Smith? Because you don't seem to offer any meaningful path forward. I expect a little more vision from an Op-Ed in the Times, not just a rant.  

2. The piece reads too much like a resume for my comfort. In the midst of his indictment, he chose to list his accomplishments, from Stanford University, to finalist for Rhodes Scholar, to table-tennis champion. He itemizes his client roster and his personal touch in great detail. The Times should not have let itself be used as a public curriculum vitae.

3. Who would want him anyway? There are no signs in the piece that he did anything to change the culture from the inside. If he had done so, it would be critical for the piece to itemize his activities. But since it didn't, we can only assume that he chose to suck it up for 12 years and then unload in a manner utterly public and damaging. Any future employer would want assurances that he would work to solve problems inside before going to the media. Sadly, those guarantees are not to be found in his Op-Ed.

4. Smith will be called a hero, but this was not whistleblowing. Even Smith says, "I don't know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client's goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact." That's pretty bad, but I'm not convinced it really merits so many square inches of the most valued real estate in media. I daresay the Times wouldn't write a news story reporting his resignation alone. Motivated by the target and the eyeballs it would attract, the Times has moved its bar noticably lower.

Publishing is really tough, and I sure do envy the traffic the New York Times must be getting today. This story is hot, and its themes are large and important. But this is reality-television, not insight. I will avidly follow the response from Goldman Sachs, and will hope that if the piece's allegations ring true, that it does motivate change. But I wish the source material was as worthy as its goal.

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