In Defense of Nepotism and Classism at the <i>New York Times</i>

I've been hard pressed to identify mainstream news outlets that qualify as bastions of true liberalism, actively devoted to advancing basic liberal principles such as racial and economic equality. I was reminded of this upon reading a recent column by Andrew Ross Sorkin.
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"Liberal media" is a catchall phrase often used by conservatives, convinced there is some grand conspiracy to use media to transform all Americans into thinking like San Francisco residents. But as someone who has written for and appeared on a host of news outlets (yes, including Fox) I have always found this notion laughable for one simple reason: I've been hard pressed to identify mainstream news outlets that qualify as bastions of true liberalism, actively devoted to advancing basic liberal principles such as racial and economic equality. I was reminded of this contradiction between the image of the so-called "liberal media" and the reality, upon reading a recent column by Andrew Ross Sorkin. The star New York Times writer and author of Too Big to Fail devoted an entire column to extolling the virtues of nepotism and classism in the workplace -- and no I'm not kidding.

How Sorkin's column passed muster at an outlet like The Times is beyond me. I have a hard time believing the paper would have published a column by a writer defending a lack of racial diversity at The New York Times, predicated on the argument that because white people are more likely to have college educated grandparents and parents, and more likely to have attended elite colleges, it simply stands to reason that The Times should not be criticized if it were to hire an all white staff. The reason The New York Times would be unlikely to publish such a column is because such thinking is lazy, sloppy and offensive. Yet Sorkin essentially spends his column making such an argument, only he does so without mentioning the word race. Instead he focuses on class status.

Sorkin's column is devoted to critiquing a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into whether JP Morgan Chase's employment of the children of certain Chinese officials flirts the line of bribery.

According to Sorkin: "The investigation is sending shudders through Wall Street. If JPMorgan Chase is found to have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by hiring the children of the elite, then the entire financial services industry is probably in a heap of trouble. Virtually every firm has sought to hire the best-connected executives in China and, more often than not, they are the 'princelings,' the offspring of the ruling elite."

That paragraph could have just as easily been written about America, something Sorkin's column goes on to make clear. But he also makes clear that he doesn't really have a problem with that. After interviewing various experts on the topic of hiring, nepotism and cronyism for his piece, Sorkin couldn't help concluding that, "It is a hard to fault a business for hiring someone who has better contacts than someone else. If the hiring is indeed part of an expected quid pro quo, that's a different story."

For Sorkin it seems, as long as such employment giveaways are not bribes, and therefore not illegal, why worry if they are unethical, and fly in the face of everything I thought our country was supposed to stand for. After all as he helpfully points out: "But given that many of the children of the elite have some of the best educations and thriving networks of contacts, it is hard to see how businesses are supposed to not seek them out, let alone turn them away. As hard to defend as the phrase may be, it is a reality of life, 'It's not what you know, but whom you know.'"

By Mr. Sorkin's logic, people like me whose great grandparents were slaves, grandparents picked cotton, parents became the first in my family to attend college (after years spent working as a domestic in the segregated South) are simply out of luck. Not because we are bad people. But because other people's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had the foresight not to be slaves, and not to live under Jim Crow and other forms of entrenched racial and class inequality. Unlike my ancestors these enterprising individuals were go-getters and spent their time building up contacts for their kids. So of course it makes perfect sense that people born with a multi-generational head start in the world should continue to be handed advantages in the workplace. Perhaps on a silver platter, but only if their pedigree is strong enough.

Making Sorkin's column all the more disturbing is that a 2010 report from the General Accountability Office based on data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Wall Street is severely lacking in the diversity department and predicted this is unlikely to change "without a sustained commitment" from firms. With his latest column Sorkin, a financial journalist, essentially exonerates firms from any such responsibility. I can only presume that perhaps Sorkin is among the 40% of white Americans who has no black friends, and possibly no friends or colleagues at The Times from diverse racial and class backgrounds either. What other way is there to explain his obvious blind spot on these issues?

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised. The reaction to my recent column on Sheryl Sandberg's non-profit's efforts to recruit unpaid interns even though she is a multi-millionaire was a stark reminder that many well-meaning people simply don't get it. As I explained in that piece, unpaid internships have become yet another way to price poor and middle class kids out of careers and ultimately the American Dream. Just like Mr. Sorkin's theory about the harmlessness of the privileged hiring fellow sons and daughters of privilege. Those industries most reliant on unpaid internships, or "whom you know," -- fashion, the arts and media (Mr. Sorkin's chosen profession), as well as Wall Street -- tend to be the least diverse. (They also tend to be populated with the most entitled. Salon's Alex Pareene has a fabulous column on the latest psychological study confirming elevated levels of entitlement and narcissism among children of the wealthy.)

I would not have the career that I do had those at my earliest internship not displayed more empathy, compassion and common sense than Mr. Sorkin and decided to compensate me -- despite the fact that they probably could have found a kid from a connected family willing to work for free. (Thanks Lois Pines et al!) I would also not have the career I have had all of my employers in media followed Mr. Sorkin's thinking, that hiring kids from connected families makes the most sense (though this is something plenty of media outlets do.)

But I'm also pretty sure that Mr. Sorkin may not have the career that he currently enjoys, at his young age, had he been born poor and a racial minority. Though not born to billionaires, he was raised in a life of affluence and privilege. He is also white and male. The fact that he seems to believe that he got where he is on talent alone proves he has much more in common with certain conservatives than any liberal. So maybe he and his latest column exist to serve as definitive proof that the New York Times is not part of the liberal media after all, but has staffers just as enlightened as the Rush Limbaughs of the world when it comes to matters of race and class. Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Special Correspondent for The Root.

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