In August 2005: “Whither Subprime Mortgage Lenders? Answer Holds Housing Market Clues.” Can you imagine a headline that read, “Whither Predatory Mortgage Lenders?” But here, and more generally, subprime is treated as a business like any other. Sure, we get warnings. But the question is not, “Are these companies regularly deceiving and exploiting consumers?” It is, “Are these stocks good buys?”
In August 2006: “Subprime-Lending Field Opens Up—As Ameriquest Restructures, New Century, Others Jump for Larger Share of Market.” Again, substitute “predatory” for “subprime” and you get an entirely different tone.
In December 2006: “Mortgage Sector Withstands Subprime’s Fallout—Derivative Index Absorbs Most of the Blow So Far from Two Lenders’ Failures.” Like its subject, this piece raises warnings about subprime and then largely assuages them. “The sky,” one trader tells us, “is not falling.”
The problem, of course, is that the sky was falling. The financial press had a hard time recognizing that fact because it didn’t understand what was happening to borrowers. The fact is, the Journal and others in the business press lost sight of the plight of borrowers on an institutional scale. And when the press dropped borrowers, it not only left them even more vulnerable, but it also lost the ability to see what was about to land before it was too late to do anything about it. This is not just a matter of using the relatively neutral, industry-oriented “subprime lending” instead of “predatory lending.” It is a matter of worldview. The press didn’t understand the danger predatory lending posed to whole communities, or the danger it posed to the financial system. In other words, the “imagined community” that the business press created in the years leading up to the crisis was imaginary in more ways than Benedict Anderson meant when he coined the phrase. When the business press lost track of the plight of borrowers, it lost track of reality.
Anderson is instructive in another way. He suggests that people read newspapers very much the way they read novels, following the narrative of particular stories. In this framework, the problem is that, having relegated the main plot to subtext, the press wrote a bad novel about the financial crisis. In the mid-2000s, the press sufficiently buried both the term and the idea of predatory lending so that the reader might in fact have wondered whether it was still part of the story. And yes, that is a tragedy.