WTF NYT?

May 23, 2012

Dan Primack was a senior editor at Fortune from 2010 to 2016. He was also the author of Term Sheet, Fortune's daily newsletter about deals and dealmakers.

FORTUNE -- The New York Times today runs an op-ed by Steven Rattner, who made political waves last week by chastising an Obama campaign ad that attacked Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital. It's titled "Tall Tales About Private Equity," and does a pretty good job explaining private equity's real purpose (making money) and how Romney has cherry-picked his own record for self-aggrandizement.

But nowhere does Rattner disclose his own private equity background, having co-founded The Quadrangle Group before leaving nearly a decade later to become President Obama's "car czar." Which would be excusable, had the NYT included this relevant note in its own attribution. Instead, it says only that: "Steven Rattner, a contributing opinion writer, was a Treasury Department official in the Obama administration."

That's right: The NYT asked a former private equity executive to write about private equity, without identifying said writer as a former private equity executive. It's a violation of reader trust. And common sense.

So I called up the paper, whose spokeswoman Eileen Murphy provided the following response:

Two reasons:

Readers of The Times op-ed page are well-acquainted with Steve Rattner.

We believe that the content of the piece and Rattner’s role in the dialogue around this issue over the past week or so make clear his association to private equity.

No Eileen. The correct answer would have been: "Yup, we should have mentioned it." And, to be fair, I spoke later with one of the paper's op-ed editors, Trish Hall, who echoed similar sentiments but was far more circumspect about it.

As I wrote earlier this week, Rattner's comments about private equity -- positive or negative -- need to be put into the proper context. So many people chiming in on Bain-related issues have some sort of skin in the private equity game (or did) and all motives should be aired so that voters/readers can make more informed decisions.

Again, this is not a critique of Rattner's piece (which I liked). It's a continuing frustration with the lack of transparency that has become epidemic in this broader discussion.

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