None of Their Business?

Perhaps it’s time to narrow the gulf between the business and the general-interest press

Well. Happy Black Monday, everybody.

By now you’ve heard the news: that Lehman Brothers is declaring bankruptcy; that Merrill Lynch as we know it will no longer exist; that insurance giant AIG is requesting a $40 billion bridge loan from the federal government to stay afloat; that we’re currently in the midst of a full-blown financial crisis; that, in general, The Sky Is Falling.

Among the many questions people are asking today, perhaps the most common—besides How could this have happened?—is the slightly more simple Um, what?. Much of today’s perfect storm of financial disasters comes as a surprise to those average news consumers who had just settled their brains for a long fall’s presidential campaign. They might have known, sure, about Lehman’s woes. And they may have received snippets of information about Merrill and AIG and the rest that, taken together, could have foreshadowed a bit of today’s Big Bang. They knew, generally, that the economy’s a mess right now—and that Wall Street’s follies are partially to blame.

But that today would be Black Monday? That those discrete “warning signs,” such as they were, would suddenly merge and morph into a “full-blown crisis”? Not so much.

And that, I’d argue, is in part the fault of the press. And, specifically, it’s the fault of the atomized structuring of financial reporting, which keeps Wall Street insiders excessively informed about the market’s most minor whims … and outsiders (read: everyone else) essentially uninformed until, as today, catastrophe befalls the market. In which case, the outsiders are suddenly and unceremoniously brought into the circle of information with doomsday-esque headlines like “FINANCIAL CRISIS” (NYT) and “Markets Tumble…” (AP) and “Market Plunges…” (LA Times) and “BLACK MONDAY: World Stocks Sink” (Huffington Post) and the like on the front pages of the news outlets of record.

Compare the WSJ’s and the FT’s and Bloomberg’s and the business pages’ treatment of the current crisis, in the days and weeks leading up to it, to the straight news pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post and the like. Rather than focus, in those days and weeks, on the incidents that led to today’s plunge, general-interest news outlets focused fairly myopically on … the presidential campaign. And, within that, Sarah Palin (“qualifications to be Vice President of,” “governorship of,” “family of,” “fashion sense of,” “recreational habits of,” “porcine allusions to,” etc.). Indeed, in the coverage of the presidential campaign, Palin and Palin-Related Minutiae comprised a whopping 60 percent of last week’s campaign coverage, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The financial crisis, either current or looming? Didn’t even make the cut.

That crisis is very tangibly a campaign issue; but it was virtually ignored as such in general-interest reportage, and got very little coverage outside of the business-press niche. Which led, last week, to a populace of news consumers aware that Todd Palin is a champion snowboarder and that his seventeen-year-old daughter will marry the father of her unborn baby…but not that the national credit crisis would, this weekend, be reaching (what we can only hope is) its nadir. Particularly considering the time the general-interest press has devoted, in the past couple of weeks, to the coverage of assorted campaign-trail inanity, you have to think that it could have found a few column inches or segment minutes to talk about the crisis. But it didn’t—at least, not in any meaningful way.

The problem is one of editorial priorities, to be sure, but it’s also one of simple structuring—and, perhaps, assumptions on the part of both sides of the media, financial and general, about what audiences really want in their news coverage. As it is now, what happens in the business press, to borrow a slogan, tends to stay in the business press; often, the admirable reporting done for the benefit of Wall Street traders and business executives isn’t made accessible to general news consumers.

Financial reporting is actionable information: information to be acted and, quite literally, traded on. But so is general reporting. And that’s particularly true during an election, in which news consumers, generally, double as voters. But prior to today, we’d heard very little about the candidates’ specific solutions to the financial crisis that was already on our hands. It’s a cyclical problem: the existing narrow news hole contributes to the lack of reporting on the crisis as a campaign issue, which itself narrows the news hole. Et cetera. Both candidates blame Wall Street for the crisis (well, of course they do: except for the “elite media,” Wall Street is everyone’s favorite scapegoat)—but have we heard about what, specifically, they’ll do in terms of regulation (or de-regulation, as the case may be) to get us out of the current crisis?

It’d have been nice to know. And it’d have been nice for the press to ask on our behalf—before, as The Huffington Post notes in its current banner headline, “WALL STREET CRISIS HIT[S] CAMPAIGN.” And, going forward, it’d be nice to see a bit more synergy between the business press and its general-interest counterpart; between, as it were—to use everybody’s favorite cliché today—Wall Street and Main Street. As The Audit’s Dean Starkman wrote in a post published earlier today, “we feel that the Events of 2007-2008, if nothing else, offer an opportunity to explore deeper journalistic issues, both cultural and structural, both in business-press newsrooms, and, especially, in top editorial and business-side suites.”

Amen to that.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.