Best of 2011: Dean Starkman

The Audit's head honcho picks his top CJR stories from the past year

Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus: The landmark 8,000-word essay that upended the future-of-news debate.

The Hole in FON Theory: In an exchange on “Confidence Game” with future-of-news thinker Clay Shirky, I argue that FON theory, while meritorious on many levels, has no answers for journalism’s main mission.

Bad Parent: Written in the midst of News Corp. hacking scandal last summer, I wrote that it has been hard to watch The Wall Street Journal, still the global business-news leader, struggling with both hands tied behind its back to cover the incredible scandal engulfing its parent.

Accountability, News Corp. Style: After News Corp. shuttered the tabloid at the center of the hacking scandal, I explained the News Corp. managerial model: Those with responsibility escape accountability. Everybody else is held to account.

Enforce the Law: British Prime Minister David Cameron, scrambling for his political life, found the time to call for an overhaul of the British press regulatory system, so-called. I argued that before it begins to worry about press ethics and other such niceties, the U.K. needs to figure out how it’s going to enforce basic criminal laws already on its books.

A Dodgy “9/11 Hacking” Story: A story that ran in the Daily Mirror (U.K.) during the height of the hacking hysteria triggered congressional outcry and an FBI probe. Trouble is, the Mirror story offers no evidence that any 9/11 phone was actually hacked, and it seems clear that the paper didn’t talk directly to anyone who was actually approached by a journalist for 9/11 victims’ phone information. It’s not even clear if the offending journalists were even from News of the World.

When Raters Used a Journalism Model: Does it rankle you that when S&P or Moody’s issues a credit warning on, say, Japanese debt, not to mention the credit profile of the United States, it still matters? It rankled me. It especially frosted my flakes because—despite the fact they are embedded in the financial system by their official status as Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations—when their conflicted ratings turn out to be bogus, they seek refuge behind the First Amendment. They fend off fraud claims by claiming they were just expressing an opinion. And it works! But there was a time when rating agencies used a model just like periodicals - subscriptions - and it was a whole different story.

What Washington Does All Day: David Brooks says correctly that not enough Washington reporters break away from the pack and report on how the government really works. Let’s just say this is an understatement. Huffington Post fills a breach in more ways than one with a fascinating piece on the epic battle now underway in Washington between banks and retailers over the $48 billion the banks now charge in interchange fees, the percentage of each transaction they charge when customers swipe debit and credit cards. Once you overcome your resistance to reading 8,000 words (and it’s too long) on interchange fees and turn on readability, you’ll be rewarded with a balanced, sober, but, no less for that, absorbing account of what Washington really does all day, which is mediate between corporate interests. The public interest may or may not get a word in edgewise.

The Pulitzers and The Wall Street Journal: Reading The Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series on Internet (un)privacy last year, I thought this has “Pulitzer” written all over it. The series, by Julia Angwin and others, had all the hallmarks of a Pulitzer winner: it was ambitious, risky (some of the companies named had objected vociferously, I am told), well-written, and full of surprises. Plus, it touched off government investigations and reform. Check, check, and check. But it didn’t win, and I saw some reasons in another series that did.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , , , ,