Finally, if reader inattention is really the problem, then what’s an appropriate policy response—mandatory exams on “Personal Journal” stories? But would the jump be included on the final? My pet idea is to pipe Squawk Box into people’s homes 24/7, with no turning it off, à la North Korea. If we’re nationalizing everything, we might as well go all the way, right?
I’d say a better approach in the wake of this disaster is to reflect on why all these “warnings” went “unheeded” and failed to penetrate the thick skulls of Pick-a-Pay Nation. Alas, the business press does not appear to be in a reflective mood. But, business press, as Jimmy Cayne might say, it’s not about you. It’s all about us. We citizens, like it or not, rely on journalists to provide word of rampant wrongdoing, and now we find ourselves well beyond the worst of all worst-case scenarios, caused, by general consensus, to an overwhelming degree by this most central of business-press beats: finance. We need to learn the lessons of the past eight years or so, even if the press doesn’t want to go along, and re-examine, from top to bottom, all the firewalls that were supposedly designed to protect us from precisely the financial catastrophe that has just occurred. These firewalls start with risk managers, officers, directors, etc., within the financial institutions, then extend outward to accounting firms, rating agencies, regulators, and yes, journalists.
The press’s role is, as always, ambiguous. On the one hand, no one at Forbes sold a single collateralized debt obligation to any German pension fund, so the press certainly can’t be blamed for causing the crisis. On the other hand, Bloomberg News employs 2,300 business journalists, The Wall Street Journal, 700-plus, The New York Times, 110, etc., and all business-news organizations purport to cover the financial system and imply, if not claim outright, mastery over a particular beat—the one that just melted down to China to the shock of one and all. So the press isn’t exactly an innocent bystander, either. It’s not 100 percent responsible, and it’s not zero percent. It’s somewhere in the middle, closer to zero than fifty, I’d say, but it had something to do with it.
Right now, the business press, which firmly believes it did all it could do, is in something of a standoff with those who believe that cannot be true. The discussion so far has been conducted largely at a schoolyard level: “You missed it!” “Did not.” We also see a lot of defensiveness among business journalists, as though somehow individual reporters are to blame. This is preposterous. These are institutional questions. Senior editorial leaders and news executives are in the dock here, as is an entire media subculture. Leaders had the power; they set the tone; they set the frames, not this reporter or that one.
Major news outlets so far have not trained their resources on the question, a drive-by or two by Howard Kurtz notwithstanding. The American Journalism Review, quoted above, did take a look and found in the business press’s favor. With all due respect to our cousins in Maryland, I find AJR’s approach—in effect, sticking a thumb into several years of coverage and pulling out some plums—inadequate. Of course somebody did something. And a few did a lot of things. But did the coverage even come close to reflecting the radical transformation of the mortgage industry and Wall Street in 2004, 2005, and 2006? Tellingly, “Unheeded Warnings” contains a disturbing number of examples from 2007, when warnings were about as useful as a garden hose during the Tokyo fire bombings. It also dwelled on coverage of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which, odious as they were, followed the private sector into subprime.
In this debate, the business press has the advantage because the public cannot be sure whether in fact it did miss something. Being sure would require reading the entire record of what was printed on the topics of lending and Wall Street in several outlets over many years—hundreds and hundreds of stories. Who in their his mind would do such a thing?
Well, somebody had to.