As one who covers the profession, I’ve often been asked, “How can you write about accounting if you’re not a CPA?”
Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s asked honestly, with nary a hint of sarcasm. I usually don’t have a pat answer but on occasion, I in turn ask them if a sportswriter needs to be an ex-major leaguer to accurately cover the baseball beat for a newspaper for magazine. That usually — if you’ll pardon the pun — drives home the point.
But last week, it struck me how similar the two professions are — albeit we, as members of the fourth estate, thankfully bypass one of the toughest exams currently administered. But in essence, we’re both overseers of the truth, whether it’s to a readership or on an audit report.
And it wasn’t some divine revelation that came to me, but rather a 7,000-word opus that appeared on the front page of the May 11 edition of the New York Times.
In a detailed mea culpa of mind-numbing proportions, the “Gray Lady” apologized to its readership while chronicling the incredible rise and free fall of one Jayson Blair, a 27-year old reporter who apparently wrote more fiction than John Updike, while purportedly working the news beat. As a result, a stockpile of stories crafted by Blair — including those on a national level such as the Beltway sniper — were either grossly inaccurate, or basically an exercise in creative writing.
As I read the tale of Blair’s incredible web of deception and rise through the ranks of the Times’ reporting cadre, I was taken with how similar the situation at the Times was, to that of Arthur Andersen 18 months ago. Or, in looking forward, several of the Big Four firms facing potential crises with accounting scandals.
There were certainly enough early warning signals about Blair, a high number of corrections in his early reporting, poor performance reviews and contradictions regarding his whereabouts during certain events. It culminated in a searing e-mail from his editor at the metro desk who told Times’ management in no uncertain terms that it “has to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Now!”
Does that ring familiar to a number of warnings received at Andersen regarding the Enron audit?
Was Blair then given the heave-ho? Nope. In fact he was actually promoted to the national news desk.
As a result of this fiasco, Times executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd are being held in the same light as David Duncan and the rest of the Enron audit crew.
So whether you’re poring over a company’s books, or holding a tape recorder in front of an interview subject, getting to the truth is the unique thread that binds these two professions closer than many think.
Like Andersen, the Times executive management chose to ignore a very traceable series of red flags and are now paying dearly for that.
We already know what an exorbitant price Andersen paid.
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