A picture may be worth a thousand words, but each of the six photos accompanying Joe Nocera's Times column Saturday brings to my mind only two words: For shame.
Let's back up a bit. I used to take a coldly cerebral view of the financial crisis, its causes and its consequences, including widespread foreclosures. This was at least in part attributable to my having covered the financial services industry in granular detail for a trade paper for many years. As a reporter, I considered it my duty to give ample consideration to more than one interpretation of events, and as an editor I'd insist that my reporters do so. Plus my general nature is to give human beings the benefit of the doubt.
So when friends and relatives -- or anyone who didn't eat, breathe and sleep banking and mortgages like I did -- would ask me about the bailouts or large bonuses or monumentally stupid lending decisions, I'd just shrug my shoulders and say "well, it's complicated."
Sure, there were things happening in the world that infuriated me -- torture, genocide, apartheid -- but these were chronicled on the international pages of the newspapers, not the business section. Bailouts? Cronyism? Consumers getting ripped off? What else was new....
Yet even I felt some OWS-level rage coursing through my veins after reading Nocera's piece and looking at the accompanying slideshow.
Nocera obtained photos from last year’s Halloween office party at a “foreclosure mill” law firm near Buffalo, where employees mockingly dressed up as evicted former homeowners (“squatters”), complete with dirt on their faces, a liquor bottle in a brown bag and a shopping cart full of junk with a “will work for food” sign. The photos, leaked to Nocera by former employees of the firm, are some of the most appalling images of human callousness I’ve seen since the smiling soldiers in the Abu Ghraib torture pics.
In spite of this damming evidence, the law firm, Stephen J. Baum, flatly denied to Nocera that its employees “belittle the plight of those who have lost their homes.” (So they were dressed up that way to show their solidarity with evicted borrowers? Auditioning for a Buffalo dinner theatre production of Les Mis perhaps?). Baum's statement described Nocera's column to him as “another attempt by The New York Times to attack our firm and our work.” (He had previously written several columns describing the Baum firm's mistreatment of an elderly borrower.)
Well, some things deserve attacking. The worst thing you could say about Nocera here is that he's picked an easy target. But this fish jumped into the barrel. Throwing a Halloween bash like that, knowing how easily a set of embarrassing photos can travel in today's digitized world, was like donning a jacket with a bull's-eye on the back.
There I go again, sounding coldly Machiavellian. Out with it, then. The party wasn't just stupid from the standpoint of reputational risk. It was offensive in and of itself. Simple.
Marc Hochstein is the Executive Editor of American Banker.