Oops! They Do It Again-The Financial Follies Blight Us Once More The Streetical

Oops! I touted again

I promised the world

I talked a good game

Oh, baby, baby

Oops! You bought at the peaks

Yeah, you pitiful geeks

You blew the Internet!

Shelley Faldetta, who works in corporate communications at BNP Paribas bank, was hopping around the stage, belting it out off-key to the tune of Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again.” Dressed in a midriff-baring gold lamé pants suit, she was impersonating Mary Meeker, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company’s bullish Internet analyst, to a packed auditorium.

People seated at the Bond Market Association’s table turned their heads away in embarrassment. They and their peers were at the New York Financial Writers Association’s 58th annual Financial Follies dinner on Nov. 17 at the Marriott Marquis Ballroom in Times Square.

Lucky for those onstage, the only people sitting in the room were journalists and flacks. No Mary Meeker. No Sandy Warner. Not even Christian Curry, the former Morgan Stanley analyst who got a nice undisclosed discrimination settlement and bought into a small African-American newspaper, making him a media type, of sorts.

This, after all, is the Financial Follies. The Washington press corps has its annual Gridiron dinner, City Hall journalists have their Inner Circle show, Albany reporters have their Legislative Correspondents banquet. So it’s only fair that the financial media have a black-tie event of their own. But unlike the Gridiron, Inner Circle or Legislative Correspondents, none of the subjects of the Follies turn up to watch the show. So there are no corporate bigwigs to suck up to, no sources to work. Just journalists and flacks.

The flacks, for the most part, buy the tables ($300 a plate for non-members, $65 for members) and the journalists eat and drink on the flacks’ tab. The proceeds then go towards the worthy cause of bringing more financial journalists into the world (through scholarships).

If the Financial Follies is any indication of what financial journalists are like, that is probably not the best idea in the world. For one thing, they are lacking in manners. The journalists do nothing to conceal their utter disrespect for their peers on the stage or for the flacks buying their dinner. The table -hopping begins even before the appetizer of wild mushroom bisque en croute is served.

For another, they are prone to being, well, snippy. Fueled by jealousy and booze, they enjoy nothing more than taking wiseass pot shots at each other. And at the whole night in general.

Last year, one former New York Times writer criticized a colleague from The Times business section, calling her a “loser” who “never publishes anything.” He called the Follies “an absurd event with deadwood journalists.” To which another New York Times writer responded this year, “That’s a crock of shit.”

Yet just a year ago, the idea of breeding more financial writers at least made good business sense. Financial writers and editors were the rock stars of the media world. The market was roaring, investing was the national pastime and news organizations were holding actual bidding wars over experienced writers and editors who could explain it all.

That, however, was before the collapse of the dot-coms, before the slow leak of air from James Cramer and TheStreet.com, before market analysts began to be viewed with skepticism, if not outright disdain. (This time around, no one lined up to pay homage to Floyd Norris, The New York Times’ market guru, as they did last year.) This year, despite a record turnout of more than 1,300 people, the timbre of the whole evening was more sober, less exuberant, and some of the Follies’ dot-com jokes hit perhaps a little too close to home.

Steve Gelsi of CBS Marketwatch.com, wearing orange Al Gore–esque foundation, noted the irony as he got ready to play Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com Inc. in the show: “I was the first dot-commer to join the Follies and now I’m up there making fun of all the dot-coms.”

“It’s officially the bear market,” joked Erin Arvedlund from Barron’s. “And you know how I know that? Because when they announced tonight that ‘we have more financial writers here than we’ve ever had’, I was like, ‘That is the fuckin’ top of the market!”

“The Follies is a contrarian indicator!” her friend laughed.

Ray O’Rourke, a flack from Morgan Stanley, which hosted a table at the Follies, didn’t seem to find it all that funny. When asked how he enjoyed Ms. Faldetta’s performance as Morgan’s Mary Meeker, he responded grimly: “This is an off-the-record event.”

Charlie’s Angles

Of course, some things never change, no matter what the markets are doing. Gene Marcial of Business Week was flanked by two blond women, as he was last year. His hair, as always, was perfect. Gary Weiss of Business Week was in his cups early on, while his friends made fun of him. “He’s a mockery of a travesty,” someone said. And almost as if on cue, someone managed to knock over a platter halfway through the show so that it hit the ground with a loud crash-just like last year.

There were the bizarre gifts: hunks of cheddar cheese last year, popcorn and sewing kits this year.

And there were, again, the shots at Charlie Gasparino, who covers the Street for The Wall Street Journal. The running joke this year was about his name appearing on the seating chart three times, at three different sponsors’ tables. Some bitched about not having been invited to the after-party he was co-hosting with his Wall Street Journal colleague Matt Murray, while still others just complained about his aggressive reporting.

“I liked him when he was on my team,” a former employer said.

“I hear Charlie Gasparino is a really nice guy,” a Smart Money reporter said, rolling his eyes.

“Oh wait,” his friend chipped in, “I think he broke that story.”

Mr. Gasparino, reached later by The Observer, declined comment.

“It’s kind of like going to your high school reunion,” explained Scott Wenger, the business editor of the Daily News. “There are old colleagues, some of whom you want to see and some of whom you don’t want to see. And there’s a degree of trepidation, because there’s always that question, ‘What are you doing with your life?'”

As in high school, the concept of noblesse oblige was virtually non-existent. David Faber, the CNBC Squawk Box star, sneered at a former colleague from his days in the trenches at Institutional Investor’s newsletter division: “I thought you’d be writing features by now.” (The Observer was not offended.)

There were other tensions. In particular, people discussed a possible rift between Goldman, Sachs & Company and The New York Times. Apparently, according to one guest, The Times, annoyed that Goldman had been feeding stories to The Wall Street Journal, skimped on their obit of Mike Mortara, the Goldman partner who was featured prominently in Liar’s Poker as one of the pioneers of mortgage-backed securities at Salomon Brothers. Mr. Mortara died on Nov. 12 , but The Times didn’t publish his obituary until Nov. 16, and when they did, they confined their tribute to the legendary Big Swinging Dick to just a few column inches.

A spokesman from The Times, responding to a call from The Observer, said: “Our obituary judgments are made by editors who have no dealings with Goldman Sachs, and no awareness of any other department’s dealings (even if the obit editors happen to assign the obit to a member of the business news staff).

“A 493-word obit in The Times is not a small thing. It reflects our judgment of overall reader interest, as well as our best effort to apportion the limited available space according to the public visibility and public reputations of the people we are writing about, as well as their accomplishments. We believe we did a pretty fair job of apportioning the space that day.”

Glenn Kramon, The Times’ business editor, denied any bad feelings between Goldman Sachs and the Gray Lady.

But despite the conflicts, the Follies contingent-from reporters at Convenience Store News to editors at The Wall Street Journal, from the flacks to the journalists, from the stars to the people that Claudia Deutsch of The New York Times described as the “has beens and never weres”-was united on one topic (besides alcohol). The show, again, was dubbed “the worst in the Follies’ history.”

Actually, it wasn’t. There were some genuinely funny moments, scripted by the veteran journalist Jeff Grigsby and his team of writers. Leonard Sloane, formerly of The New York Times, playing Alan Greenspan to the “Man of La Mancha”: “I am I, Alan Greenspan, the ruler of the nations / Again I have rescued you slobs! / I had to do something / ‘Cause bus’ness was too good / And too many people had jobs.” And Mr. Gelsi’s portrayal of Mr. Bezos of Amazon.com Inc. to the tune of “Seventy-Six Trombones” from The Music Man: “Seventy-six dot-coms crashing every day / With a hundred and ten more facing the end / And a cortege of rows of pimply impresarios / All lined up to file for Chapter Ten!”

Sarah Bradley of CNNfn delivered an almost-Broadway-caliber performance as Hillary Clinton, to the tune of Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life.” Starting off in a red skirt-suit and later stripping down to a camisole top as she strutted around stage, Ms. Bradley staged a faux press conference on Hillary’s “recent divorce”:

For once in my life I can do my own lying

The way Bill always taught me to do-

Wait … oh … I’m sorry

For once in my life I will be a real winner

Without that schmuck Bill by my side

So now in my life I can dump that gross sinner

And screw a few hunks on the side–

Oh wait …

And maybe become a new bride

Now in my new life I want monster erections-

Uh, I’ll stand erectly

And hold my head up high

No more need to cry

Shalom, Bill, goodbye.

There were references to Hezbolla and Hadassah (Hillary as portrayed by Ms. Bradley mixed them up), with Monica-last year’s news-thrown in for good measure. Then the big finish:

If you ever thought that I needed direction

Don’t get in my way, I’ll mess up your complexion

‘Cause what you see now may be or may not be me!

It was the one performance that got substantial applause, and afterwards Sally Heinemann, editorial director of Bridge News, remarked: “If [the real] Hillary were that talented, we’d be lucky.”

It was perhaps telling this year that the Follies casting directors had saved their best talent for a non-financial skit, revealing how this year’s election had eclipsed the starlight of financial stories in the year 2000. Even in a year that featured the AOL-ing of Time Warner, the comedown of Bill Gates, ICG and other business disasters, the events leading up to Nov. 7 were more compelling.

But it didn’t really matter what the skits were about or how good or bad the show was. As in years past, the Follies Committee putting on the show had their hands full enough simply trying to get the guests to sit still and pay attention.

Ms. Deutsch, who covers blue-chip companies for The Times, got so fed up with the disappearing audience that, as president of the Financial Writers Association in 1997, she tried to kill the show. She was overruled. (Some people still wish that that wasn’t the case, though she said she went backstage this year and told the cast she had been wrong.) Another year Tony Guida, who now works for CNNfn, reportedly stood up and reprimanded the audience.

This year, the tactics were a little more subtle: They kept the lights dim so that it was harder to find people at other tables, the performers showed some skin and- perhaps in keeping with the theme of this year’s show, Survivor-the evening’s planners withheld food from the crowd until the performance was over at about 9 p.m.

Still, the committee’s efforts had mixed results. People did not talk as much in the aisles, but plenty started bolting for the exit three or four acts into the show, escaping with bottles of wine from their tables.

Outside the ballroom afterward, Kelly Gruel of International Financing Review explained, “I didn’t watch any of the acts because the Follies are notorious for having terrible entertainment. If you stayed and watched the whole show, you’re obviously a rookie.”

James Taranto, the editor of The Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed Web site, Opinionjournal.com, agreed: “Some people are just naturals at what they do, and watching these folks perform, I’m convinced that they’re all natural writers.”

The Party’s Over

Outside on the Marquis balcony at one of the after-parties, Irene Weissman, a Follies cast member formerly of Reuters, dressed in a white fur and sparkly blue eye-shadow, complimented Mr. Gelsi on his performance as Jonathan Lebed, the 16-year-old day-trader who was busted for manipulating stocks on the Internet. Mr. Gelsi had stripped down to his boxers during the performance (his character had used his winnings to pay for hookers) and was joking about Ms. Weissman having followed him into his dressing room.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a bare chest in three years!” she explained. “It’s about time!”

Thom Geier from Entertainment Weekly, who played Bill Gates, explained why Mr. Gelsi’s striptease didn’t go any further: “We want to keep this PG-13. Otherwise, John McCain and the F.T.C. will swoop down on us and prevent us from marketing to children, which would be a great travesty to financial writers everywhere.”

And so the night continued. Mr. Gasparino and Mr. Murray hosted their party at O’Flaherty’s Ale House on West 46th Street. They moved the party from last year’s venue of Russian Samovar, presumably to eliminate the lethal Russian vodka punch and the staircase that had proven to be hazardous for Mr. Murray in 1999. The result was a much more tame evening. In attendance, in addition to a slew of Wall Street Journal reporters, was Jack Willoughby from Barron’s and the P.R. macher George Sard. Allan Dodds Frank from CNN was there, wearing a sealskin bow tie from his days at the Anchorage Daily News and complaining about the coat check at the Follies, which closed early, thereby forcing him to carry his coat around to all the after-parties. Ed Finn, editor of Barron’s, introduced himself to The Observer as Paul Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, but quickly checked himself. Asked what he thought about the somewhat cozy relationship between reporters and the P.R. people who wine and dine them at the Follies, he shrugged and turned away.

“Only Gasparino can get this many people with a cash bar,” someone said irritably as he paid for a drink. (Only the first 100 drinks served were free.)

In contrast was the lavish affair thrown by Diageo, the liquor conglomerate, at the Hudson Theater in the Millennium Hotel on West 44th Street. Outside the party room, a woman lay passed out across two chairs while her friends labored to find her a cab. Inside there was free top-end booze and gift bags with CD’s and coffee-table books about cocktail shakers, as well as a 12-piece salsa band, to which the Follies revelers twisted and turned about as well as anyone who reads balance sheets on a daily basis can be expected to do. No one seemed bothered by the stale smell of vomit that permeated the room.

Steve Lipin, The Wall Street Journal’s mergers and acquisitions hotshot, was walking around by himself, looking a bit subdued for someone who was immortalized in print as a “young turk” (Howard Kurtz’s The Fortune Tellers). But such was the tone of the evening. As the band took a break and a D.J. started playing “Never Can Say Goodbye” by the Jackson Five, there was a subtle but palpable sense that, despite the evening’s sexy Latin music and Tanqueray martinis and fancy hardcover books, the big Wall Street Party was over and the people still hanging around were trying a little too hard to have a good time.

Amidst the confetti strewn about the floor, there was a business card from a woman at CNN, symbolic perhaps of a networking or hook-up attempt gone awry, and fitting for these uncertain days at the end of Y2K. The card, though intact, was covered with shoe marks, having been stepped on over and over again by the financial scribes and spin-doctors who kept dancing up there on the Millennium Hotel’s big stage, until they gave in to the late hour,and exited, finally, into the cold November night.