For another thing, readers could answer that while it is true that they may have missed warnings, they do recall hearing messages that didn’t sound like warnings at all. Anyone “paying attention” might have thought that the most important thing about Washington Mutual on a given day was that its “Creative Retail Approach” had turned “the Banking World Upside Down” (Fortune, 3/31/03); that Lehman Brothers was “Trading Up” (The Wall Street Journal, 10/13/04); that Ken Lewis had become the “Banker of America” by “Ignoring His Critics” (Fortune, 9/5/05); that Angelo Mozilo was merely pugnacious (“The Mortgage Maker vs. The World,” The New York Times, 10/16/05); that Citigroup was “Cleaned Up” (!) though “Falling Behind” (Business Week, 10/05/06); and, additionally, that Goldman (drum roll) had “Sachs Appeal” (honk) (Forbes, 1/29/07).
Nothing about mortgage boiler rooms and CDO factories there, no matter how carefully you read.
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.