Today I’m especially missing my old boss Mark Pittman, the financial journalist who petitioned the Federal Reserve to identify the financial firms that borrowed from the discount window in 2008.
The Fed denied Mark’s Freedom of Information Act request and then fought a lawsuit filed by his employer, Bloomberg News. After the legal battle reached the Supreme Court, the Fed was forced to make the disclosure, and it did so Thursday with a data dump that was at least as noteworthy for how it was disclosed as for what it disclosed.
The information was made available on computer disks – wait, people still use those? – that reporters could pick up from the Fed’s building in Washington (or have mailed to them if they were willing to wait). Viewable on the disks were reams of documents captured in an overwhelming number of PDF files meant to be opened one by one.
How Mark would have delighted in all this, not because he would have looked forward to spending his day opening PDF documents and doing the painstaking work of translating them into plain English, but because he understood and appreciated the fact that institutions – be they financial, political or otherwise – have a natural propensity to obfuscate.
Mark died in November 2009 at the age of 52. He had a history of heart trouble, an irony not easily reconciled by anyone who knew just how much heart he had, for his work, for his family, for his colleagues and his friends. Mark taught me nearly everything I know about the credit markets. When I worked on the corporate finance reporting team he led for a time at Bloomberg, he warned me there was nothing he could offer to advance my writing – some editors are wordsmiths; Mark was not – but the one thing he could really teach me, he said, was “how to get people to tell you sh*t.”
The disclosure and accountability Mark demanded of the Fed on behalf of his fellow citizens has been delivered now, and it will continue to be delivered, at least on a delayed basis, thanks to the portion of the Dodd-Frank Act instructing the Fed to identify discount window borrowers some two years after the fact. Maybe the next battle on this front will be over the manner in which the disclosures are made, so that any curious citizen could satisfy his or her curiosity without the aid of a rocket scientist trained to manipulate hard-to-organize data.