We used the news database Factiva, which has its unfortunate quirks but is still useful as an indicator of general trends, to give us a rough quantitative lay of the linguistic landscape over the past two decades. Using the graph on page 47, you can see that the phrase “predatory lending” had a slow start in the press, with collective use by a broad spectrum of “major news and business publications” remaining in the single or double digits each year through the 1990s. Usage increased in the 2000s, rising from three or four hundred in the first two years of the decade to seven hundred or so in each of the next two years (as state attorneys general, who used the term a lot, waged a campaign against unscrupulous lenders around the nation), then falling back to the four hundreds or below each year from 2004 through 2006 (when the Bush administration came down hard on those AGs at the behest of the banking industry, even as the worst kinds of predatory loans flourished). Then in 2007 usage spiked at more than a thousand instances, along with widespread recognition of the financial crisis. But it falls back down to the seven hundreds in 2008 and continues down to fewer than three hundred for the first half of this year.
It’s important to keep in mind that the dip in the press’s use of the term “predatory lending” that began in 2004 coincides almost exactly with a tremendous spike—a veritable onslaught—of actual predatory lending in the real world. This is part of the heartbreaking press failure in this economic crisis that we have documented previously (see “Power Problem,” CJR, May/June 2009).
By contrast, “subprime” started late but took off fast, with hits reaching more than seven hundred in 1998, according to Factiva, when the market enjoyed an early boomlet (along with some pushback from the government that we’ll get to in a minute). While “subprime” generally mirrored the track of “predatory” for the first few years of the current decade—if on a slightly larger scale—it began to diverge mid-decade and then shot up tremendously, to more than 75,000 by 2007, when it peaked with the onset of the current crisis. That year, and continuing through 2008, hits for “subprime” were on the order of seventy or eighty times more frequent than hits for “predatory lending.”
Predatory lending is a subset of the subprime market, and so one might argue that we shouldn’t expect “predatory” to be used as often as “subprime.” But not as often is one thing, and eighty times less is quite another. Also, such an argument ignores the fact that the problem here—and thus the news—is the predatory aspect of subprime. Anyone who didn’t understand that didn’t understand the story.
As the press should have known, but apparently didn’t, the subprime industry has always been in large part the domain of sleazebags and became only more so over time. The problem, as consumer advocates long argued, mostly in vain, was not that higher-risk borrowers were getting loans, but that they were getting bad loans. So not only did the shift to the word “subprime” remove all reference to aggressor and victim—professional and civilian, con man and conned—it stigmatized an entire community of borrowers. To the extent that subprime comes to be seen as bad, subprime borrowers are bad. Lenders? Just doing their job.
Thus the significance of this linguistic shift is major. Here’s the thing: the roots of the current crisis lie in the disastrous expansion of the subprime market, which ballooned in the 1990s and 2000s—thanks, in large part, to Wall Street, which was looking for more mortgage-backed securities to stoke a blazing market, and to corrosive deregulation. Though it makes little sense, a recurring press mantra has it that borrowers, as much as anyone else, are to blame. But blaming borrowers in a systemic way ignores the structure of the subprime market and the extent to which lenders had power and borrowers did not.