When Anthony Scaramucci took over as White House communications director, prompting the resignation of press secretary Sean Spicer, the initial reaction from Washington journalists was warily optimistic. Where Spicer was aggressive and hostile, Scaramucci would be “smooth ” and affable. He even blew a kiss to end his first press briefing. These looked like signs of a thaw. After all, officials and reporters in Washington may still joke around after a bad story or a slight; the hostility is often for show. Politics is communal and built on co-dependency.
Finance is different. It is individualist and zero-sum. As a reporter and editor covering Wall Street for 18 years, I studied the industry’s aggressive approach toward the press: Financiers, and the multibillion-dollar companies they work for, are friendly and charming as long as you see things their way, and they do everything they can to win reporters over. But when reporters don’t buy their line, the Wall Street answer is to get intransigent journalists removed from stories.
.. President Trump reportedly liked that Scaramucci’s pushback about an inaccurate CNN story — complete with rumored threat of legal action — led to the departures of three veteran investigative journalists. Scaramucci pointedly called on a CNN reporter at his first briefing and a few days later said, on a hot microphone, that network boss Jeff Zucker “helped me get the job by hitting those guys,” referring to the unemployed reporters.
.. There’s every reason to believe that the White House team sees this as a model: It will not worry about the accuracy of what is published, only whether the tone is Trump-friendly.
.. Of his new job, Scaramucci says, “It is a client service business, and [Trump] is my client.”
.. When a negative report was in the works, company representatives often called up the journalist writing it and tried to ingratiate themselves with a charming introduction and some light chitchat. The point was to humanize the people at the firm so that journalists would feel guilty reporting negatively about it.
.. When a piece was in process, they’d follow up daily, trying to get a sense of who the journalist’s sources were and the direction of the story. The key at this point was to keep their enemies close.
.. My favorite of their techniques, used by two major investment houses, was to flatly deny a story that I knew was accurate.
.. When charm didn’t work, I saw or heard about firms
- calling editors and even
- contacting media executives.
Insults and obscenities were common. One troubled hedge fund’s foul-mouthed manager called me every day for a week with some new litany of abuse... Other companies tried to co-opt aggressive reporters by offering them lucrative jobs.. If the full-court press failed, the next step was usually to call the reporter’s editor and complain that the subject didn’t feel he or she was getting a fair shake. The point was to undermine a reporter’s support within their organization, with a view toward neutralizing their reporting.Anything the reporter had said, even in a casual conversation, could be used as evidence of an ulterior motive. Refusing to finesse quotes was seen as biased intransigence... Every journalist who covers Wall Street knows that banks keep tabs on them, sometimes spoken of as “dossiers,” though they’re nothing fancy: reporters’ articles, backgrounds, editors, potentially revealing comments they may have made to the bank’s communications team. Financial firms have multiple people picking over journalists’ past work, looking for a word or phrase that could be interpreted as biased... A senior executive at Uber once suggested that the company compile opposition research on journalists who wrote critical stories.Microsoft once broke into the Hotmail account of a blogger while pursuing the source of internal leaks... The last technique I saw used against news organizations was threats, and this is what Scaramucci appears to have mastered with CNN.
- At different publications, I saw the names of Russian oligarchs removed from stories after threats of lawsuits. ‘
- Once, an editor killed an entire investigation because the Koch brothers threatened a lawsuit if it went forward.
- In my first job, writing for a tiny finance trade publication, the treasurer of a multibillion-dollar company told me in an interview that the firm planned to raise money by selling bonds — then called back and threatened to sue if I quoted his on-the-record comment.
.. Business is often a zero-sum proposition, and executives sometimes see their relationships with journalists that way, too.
- Less than a week after his kissy debut at the White House lectern, he blamed the press for capitalizing on “leaks” that were in fact on-the-record quotes he himself had made.
- Then he demanded an FBI investigation over how Politico obtained his financial disclosure form — which is public information .
- On Thursday night, he tweeted that he’d “made a mistake in trusting a reporter,” Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, who had quoted his on-the-record comments about White House colleagues.
So forget the pleasant tone and the cheerful smiles that Scaramucci brought at first. The White House press corps now faces a much more aggressive, much more personal fight than the Beltway is used to.
It’s not crazy to believe that a few more journalists may lose something beyond their access to the White House — they may lose their beats or even their jobs