All of you brokerage houses
Are like teenage girls
Who throw away their dolls
When they dress in pearls.…
Hit me with your downgrade
Why don’t you hit me with your down-grade
Hit me with your downgrade
Gene Marcial, Business Week ‘s Inside Wall Street columnist, was beaming at the stage, where a Paribas flack, dressed in a disco Barbie skirt and top, was impersonating Jill Barad, the embattled chief executive of Mattel Inc. She was belting it out to the tune of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” It wasn’t pretty, but Mr. Marcial liked it. “Barbie-I think she was good,” he said afterward.
Mr. Marcial and his colleagues were at the New York Financial Writers’ Association’s 57th annual Financial Follies dinner held on Nov. 19 at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square.
The Washington press corps has its annual Gridiron dinner, and the City Hall crew gets its Inner Circle show, so it is only natural that New York’s financial media should have a rubber-chicken dinner of their own.
As rubber-chicken dinners go, it’s pretty second-rate. Unlike the Gridiron and the Inner Circle, none of the subjects of the Follies’ spoofs or of the journalists’ coverage show up. There are no swinging dicks in this room. The corporate chiefs and dealmakers couldn’t care less. So it is not a place to work sources or observe the red faces of the corporate elite. It is a night for journalists and flacks. The flacks buy the tables; the journalists dine and drink on the flacks’ dime. On Nov. 19 more than a thousand of them showed up at the Marriott in evening dress to watch their peers make light of the year’s top stories: Martin Frankel, Bank of New York, day traders.
And Lou Dobbs. Backstage, before the show, Steve Gelsi, a reporter for CBS Marketwatch.com, was getting into his space suit. He was playing Mr. Dobbs, the former CNN-FN president who left in June to start a space Web site. “I’ve always wanted to be a spaceman,” Mr. Gelsi said.
And for a few brief moments he was. His was the sixth number, sung to the tune of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”: I’m a star, here on planet Earth/ I’m a star, I’m a broadcast star/ I’m a star, ball of gas . Before the lines were even sung, a Teleprompter conveyed the lyrics to the audience. What laughter there was, was diffuse.
A couple of numbers later, retired New York Times reporter Leonard Sloane, in a yellow V-neck sweater, was doing Microsoft Corporation’s chief executive, Bill Gates. ( I am what I am/ Don’t make me out/ Kinder than Jesus/ Nice guys finish last/ They kiss my ass /I’m richer than Croesus. ) As he forged grimly ahead, someone knocked over a platter. There was a loud crash. The journalists and the flack hosts at their tables seemed to take it as a sign that it was time to get up and work the room.
There was Ron Insana, the CNBC star, and his colleague David Faber, who met his fiancée at the Follies a few years ago. And Steve Lipin, The Wall Street Journal ‘s mergers and acquisitions ace. And whaddaya know, Floyd Norris, the Times financial columnist, not far from the stage. A line of supplicants (mostly women) queued up to talk to him. Tall, rotund and stately in his tuxedo, the white-haired Mr. Norris patiently obliged the fans surrounding his table sponsored by the American Stock Exchange and the National Association of Securities Dealers. He was asked what he thought of journalists occupying the limelight. ” This is the limelight?” he sneered.
Well, it was for some reporters. Roberta Yafie, a Follies veteran, was particularly exhilarated after her performance. She had played Tina Brown, to the tune of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” ( Call me Gotham’s golden goddess/ I’m the talk of the town … ) After the show, she smoked a cigarette and recalled the good old days when Variety devoted six column inches to the Follies. “I was so excited!” said Ms. Yafie, a copper editor at American Metal Market , a trade publication. “There I am-my name’s in Variety ! I sent a copy to my mother.”
At around 10 P.M., the crowd began to head upstairs to the Marriott’s ninth-floor indoor terrace, for a reception hosted by Merrill Lynch & Company and a company called Red Chip. There were several bars and two dance floors with deejays and free gift bags with large hunks of cheddar cheese.
A deejay was playing Hazell Dean’s “Searching (I Gotta Find a Man).” Three women were dancing together on an otherwise empty dance floor, while two skinny young men in baseball hats and baggy pants-mere civilians, clearly-watched them from the terrace. “Why aren’t any guys dancing with them?” one of the young men asked.
They were students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Their names were Ronald and Ernie, and they had come to the Marriott to shoot scenes for a documentary they were making about “corporate events.” But they weren’t having much luck. They kept getting kicked out of corporate events before they could get anything on film. This was no exception. As the guys stood there with their camera, one of the dancing women rushed off the dance floor toward them. It was Bobbie Collins, a Merrill Lynch flack. She asked to see their ID’s. “You guys don’t belong here!” she said. “It’s 21 and over.”
“We’ve been kicked out of most of these events,” Ronald said, after they’d retreated down the hall. “Most adults are pretty mean and not very nice to kids in hats. Why are adults so boring? Why is it that older people lose their personality? They become as much fun as cheese that’s been sitting out for 20 days. Is it because they make a lot of money they can be mean to people? Because, if I made a lot of money, I’d be nice. I don’t like journalists. I think they’re vultures. We want to present beauty on the screen. You guys want the cold hard facts.”
Then they left, to seek out more corporate events. On this Friday night, the Marriott was full of them.
Back at the party, the crowd had thickened. People were starting to get drunk. Some of the guys were even starting to dance.
Gary Weiss, a senior writer at Business Week , stood off to the side, summing up the scene. “The P.R. industry that has the money wines and dines the financial press that does not: Everybody knows that a large number of financial reporters are completely co-opted by people they write about. I’ve been co-opted by the Mafia!”
“He’s so crazy !” another reporter gushed.
Before long, people started leaving. Next stop: the after-parties.
Charles Gasparino, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal , was hosting one at Russian Samovar on West 52nd Street. It was after midnight, and a financial reporter from The New York Time s sat at the bar downstairs, eating smoked fish and caviar. As he ate, he started to criticize one of his colleagues from the Times business section (while insisting that his own name not be used). “She’s such a loser!” he said. “She never publishes anything! A few years ago at the Follies, she reamed someone for not watching her stupid, lame, deadwood journalism performance.”
His friend, a flack, was anxiously trying to shut him up, but the reporter waved him off. “It’s an absurd event with deadwood journalists,” the reporter said. “All the losers are prancing around with their skin hanging down, some looking over the hill, some looking underage, some looking out of their minds. But it makes political sense to come to these events, even if it’s gross.”
Upstairs, reporters hovered around a white marble bar, waiting for drinks. One of them, a reporter from Bloomberg Business News, introduced himself to The Observer as Charlie Gasparino of The Wall Street Journal .
“There’s kind of an undercurrent of resentment towards Charlie Gasparino,” explained his friend, another Bloomberg reporter. “It’s because he’s done so well.”
Downstairs, a lone investment banker from Bear, Stearns & Company had come into the restaurant. It was now close to 3 A.M. He wanted to know what was going on. Why was everyone so dressed up?
Mr. Weiss, the Business Wee k writer, walked in with Karen Donovan, a National Law Journal reporter. They seemed well on their way. “Don’t they have any food here?” she said loudly. “Any vodka ?”
Mr. Weiss began merrily bemoaning the state of financial journalism again. Then he noticed the banker. “Oh, do you work in the brokerage industry?” Mr. Weiss asked, casually.
“No,” the banker said.
“Where do you work?”
“Priceline.com,” the banker lied.
“Oh, that’s a legitimate company,” Mr. Weiss said. He wandered off, disappointed.
The banker took a sip from his drink and said to The Observer , “I don’t understand your circle.”
It was getting late. The reporters were starting to leave the restaurant. One of them actually remembered to leave a tip. Amid the empty glasses on the bar he left behind a small pile of dimes.