Accountability reporting comes in many forms—a series of revelations in a newspaper or online, a book, a TV magazine segment—but its most common manifestation has been the long-form newspaper or magazine story, the focus of this book. Call it the Great Story. The form was pioneered by the muckrakers’ quasi-literary work in the early 20th century, with Tarbell’s exposé on the Standard Oil monopoly in McClure’s magazine a brilliant example. As we’ll see, the Great Story has demonstrated its subversive power countless times and has exposed and clarified complex problems for mass audiences across a nearly limitless range of subjects: graft in American cities, modern slave labor in the US, the human costs of leveraged buyouts, police brutality and corruption, the secret recipients on Wall Street of government bailouts, the crimes and cover-ups of media and political elites, and on and on, year in and year out. The greatest of muckraking editors, Samuel S. McClure, would say to his staff, over and over, almost as a mantra, “The story is the thing!” And he was right.
“Access reporting,” the practice of obtaining inside information from powerful people and institutions, is the longstanding rival of accountability reporting. They are American journalism’s two main tendencies, and the tension between the two can be said to define the field. The access and accountability schools represent radically different understandings of what journalism is and whom it should serve. The two practices produce entirely different representations of reality, and this difference proved critical in the run-up to the crash. Access reporting emphasizes gaining inside information from the actions or intentions of powerful actors before they are widely known. Its stock-in-trade is the scoop, or exclusive. In business news, the prototypical access story is the mergers-and-acquisitions scoop. Accountability reporting, in contrast, seeks to gather information not from but about powerful actors. The typical accountability story is the long-form exposé.
I usually keep in mind proxies for the two schools: Gretchen Morgenson, the great investigative reporter and editor for The New York Times, and Andrew Ross Sorkin, who runs Dealbook, a thriving unit of the same paper that focuses on inside scoops about business mergers and acquisitions. Morgenson was the first to reveal—in the face of furious opposition from Goldman Sachs, among others—the beneficiaries of the bailout of the American International Group, namely Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street banks. Sorkin’s monumental crisis book, Too Big to Fail, lionized Wall Street figures for their (failed) efforts to avert a catastrophe their own institutions had caused. That the two leading representatives of the two journalism poles work for the same newspaper only emphasizes the degree to which journalism must balance both tendencies.
One way to think about the difference is that access reporting tells readers what powerful actors say while accountability reporting tells readers what they do. Access reporting tends to talk to elites; accountability, to dissidents. Access writes about specialized topics for a niche audience. Accountability writes about general topics for a mass audience. The differences are so stark that they can be distilled into a list:
Access tends to transmit orthodox views; accountability tends to transmit heterodox views. In business news, access reporting focuses on investor interests; accountability, on the public interest.
Access and accountability, then, are journalism’s Jacob and Esau, Gog and Magog, forever in conflict over resources, status, and influence. But it’s hardly a fair fight. Access reporting is journalism’s bread and butter. Its stories are quicker to produce and rarely confrontational, making them more compatible with news-productivity needs. Accountability reporting, meanwhile, is forever marginal, a cost center, burdened with stories that are time consuming and enemy making. But of the two strains, only one speaks to, and for, the broader public.
I come to this debate from a 30-year career as a journalist, 10 of those as an investigative reporter, 10 as a business reporter. I’ve done both access and accountability reporting and understand the necessity of both. The problem for journalism and the public, however, is that accountability reporting is at once the most vital and, at the same time, the most vulnerable. The difference between the two is the difference between probing Citigroup in 2003 and profiling it in 2006. Put simply, accountability reporting got the story that access reporting missed.