October 20, 2010

Andrew Sorkin ’99 Talks Wall Street, Journalism

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Andrew Ross Sorkin ’99 returned to Cornell Wednesday to host a book signing and panel discussion on his bestselling book, Too Big to Fail, a behind-the-scenes, moment-by-moment account of how the financial crisis developed. After receiving a degree in communications at Cornell, Sorkin eventually became the chief mergers/acquisitions reporter and columnist for The New York Times as well as the editor of the Dealbook blog, a daily financial report on nytimes.com.

Although he never considered himself a natural writer, Sorkin had imagined in college that he would one day write a book.

At 2:30 a.m. on September 14, 2008 — 45 minutes after Lehman Brothers collapsed — Sorkin finally found his story. “I was waiting for a story, a great narrative, that had a lot of tension,” he said in an interview with The Sun on Wednesday afternoon.

In an attempt to put the public “inside the room,” Sorkin interviewed more than 200 people for a total of more than 500 hours.

Sorkin said that when he was conducting his research for the book, he was most surprised by “how much worse it was than we ever knew … I don’t think I personally — nor do I think the public — had any sense of what we were up against.”

The severity of the crisis and the level of government involvement “in what was otherwise ostensibly a free market” also shocked Sorkin, he said.

In addition to a deeper knowledge of the relationships between corporate and government players during the crisis, Sorkin said he hopes that readers gain an understanding of the “humanity” and “fragility” the figures simultaneously represent.

“The last surprise, because I think it is what the story is ultimately about, is the fallibility of people. We all project onto people these superhuman qualities that we think people have when they have a certain business card or a certain amount of money or a title,” Sorkin said. “No matter how much money [these people] have, or whatever appointed position they have in Washington, everyone seems to make the same kind of mistakes.”

Beyond discussing the financial crisis, Sorkin also provided advice to the new generation of Cornell students. Sorkin started working for the The New York Times in 1995 when he was still in high school.  During the panel discussion, he explained that he received this rare opportunity through persistence.

“Persistence over talent wins every day,” Sorkin said.

After numerous calls and what he jokingly describes as “love letters” to Stuart Elliott, the advertising columnist for The New York Times, Sorkin convinced Elliott to meet for lunch and subsequently landed an internship — and a business card labeled “xerox and stapler bitch,” he said — at age 15.

Sorkin urged students similarly interested in journalism to “read like crazy,” to continually pitch ideas to their editors and to maintain their curiosity.

“If you’re in journalism, you have to be curious. There are people who think they want to be in journalism and are not innately curious, and I think that is a real struggle,” Sorkin said.

Extending this advice to other fields, Sorkin emphasized the importance of finding one’s passion and of networking. Even if “you are just xeroxing and stapling,” he said, it is important to get “your foot in the door.”

Regarding students pursuing careers on Wall Street, Sorkin warned that “Wall Street is going to be boring and unsexy for a very long time.”

He said he believes that the luster of Wall Street careers has waned in recent years.

“The ‘masters of the universe’ mantra and heroification of the hedge fund manager is going to be over for quite a while, partially because of the regulation and partially because the economy is going to be lousy for a while,” he said. “My expectation is that we’re going to bump along the bottom for years.”

From a philosophical and societal standpoint, Sorkin does not see this decrease in Wall Street appeal as negative. He said that the influx of “smart people” into the financial industry created a “remarkable brain drain from the rest of the economy,” so a greater intelligence pool will now likely be spread over a broader range of industries.

Although Sorkin calls himself “apolitical,” he presented a sympathetic position regarding the Obama administration’s handling of the economic crisis.

“I think you have to start with the premise that [Obama] was dealt a very bad hand walking into the job. I don’t think he played his cards as well as he could have,” he said.

Regarding Obama’s shortcomings, Sorkin explained how some of the President’s policy choices and rhetoric isolated the business community. Not only did the six-month moratorium on deep water drilling after the BP scandal scare business people, but Obama’s rhetoric in calling Wall Street players “fat cats” undermined people’s confidence in investing in the economy, Sorkin said.

In order to improve the economy, he suggested that the government focus instead on creating infrastructure. Some economists say that every dollar the government spends on infrastructure results in $1.57 more in return, according to Sorkin. He criticized Obama for spending money on avoiding layoffs rather than generating money and new jobs as infrastructure would.

Original Author: Margo Cohen Ristorucci