Critics contended, understandably, that the business press must have been asleep at the wheel. In a March 2009 interview that would go viral, the comedian Jon Stewart confronted the CNBC personality Jim Cramer with the problem. Stewart said, in effect, that business journalism presents itself as providing wall-to-wall, 24/7 coverage of Wall Street but had somehow managed to miss the most important thing ever to happen on that beat—the Big One. “It is a game that you know is going on, but you go on television as a financial network and pretend it isn’t happening,” is how Stewart framed it. And many understood exactly what he meant.
Top business-news professionals—also understandably, perhaps—have defended their industry’s pre-crisis performance. In speeches and interviews, these professionals assert that the press in fact did provide clear warnings and presented examples of pre-crisis stories that told about brewing problems in the lending system before the crash. Some have gone further and asserted that it was the public itself that had failed—failed to respond to the timely information the press had been providing all along. “Anybody who’s been paying attention has seen business journalists waving the red flag for several years,” wrote Chris Roush, in an article entitled “Unheeded Warnings,” which articulated the professionals’ view at length. Diana Henriques, a respected New York Times business and investigative reporter, defended her profession in a speech in November 2008: “The government, the financial industry and the American consumer—if they had only paid attention—would have gotten ample warning about this crisis from us, years in advance, when there was still time to evacuate and seek shelter from this storm.” There were many such pronouncements. Then the press moved on.
It is only fair to point out that, beyond speeches and assertions, the business press has not published a major story on its own peculiar role in the financial system before the crisis. It has, meanwhile, investigated and taken to task virtually every other possible agent in the crisis: Wall Street banks, mortgage lenders, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, the Office of Thrift Supervision, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, compensation consultants, and so on. This kind of forensic work is entirely appropriate. But what about the watchdog?
In the spring of 2009, the Columbia Journalism Review, where I work as an editor, undertook a project with a simple goal: to assess whether the business press, as it contended, did indeed provide the public with adequate warning of looming dangers when it could have made a difference. The idea was to perform a fair reading of the record of institutional business reporting before the crash. We created a commonsense list of nine major business news outlets (The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, Businessweek, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post) and used news databases to search for stories that could plausibly be considered warnings about the heart of the problem: abusive mortgage lenders and their funders on Wall Street. We then asked the news outlets to volunteer their best work during this period, and, to their credit, nearly all of them cooperated.
The result was “Power Problem,” published in the spring of 2009. Its conclusion was simple: The business press had done everything but take on the institutions that brought down the financial system. The record shows that the press published its hardest-hitting investigations of lenders and Wall Street between 2000 and 2003, even if there were only a few of them. Then, for reasons I will attempt to explain, it lapsed into useful but not sufficient consumer- and investor-oriented stories during the critical years of 2004 through 2006. Missing are investigative stories that directly confront powerful institutions about basic business practices while those institutions were still powerful. The watchdog didn’t bark.