Best of 2010: Felix Salmon

Highlights from CJR's newest Peterson Fellow

Salvaging the FCIC: The primer offered by Republicans members of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is essentially 5,400 words of nothing much at all: There was a housing bubble. The US government was involved. So were the banks. There was a run on the banks. Which hurt the economy. That’s basically it. As advertised, the terms “Wall Street,” “shadow banking,” “interconnection,” and “deregulation” are nowhere to be found. For this anodyne material, bereft of any insight, we’re paying something over $1,000 a word? Is there any chance the FCIC will put all its source material online?

The Journal Digs Into Medtronic’s Payments to Surgeons: The WSJ puts a lot of time and effort into its “leders” —those long, exhaustively-reported front-page exclusives about topics which might not be breaking news but which are still very important. So why is it that when a story is based on information found online, the WSJ still can’t seem to link to it?

BusinessWeek Takes a Road Already Traveled: We eagerly turned to a new Bloomberg Businessweek profile of Larry Fink to learn something new, especially about the famously tense relationship between Fink and Goldman Sachs. But weirdly, the authors seem to go out of their way not to delve. If you only read one profile of Fink, the best one remains last April’s piece by Suzanna Andrews in Vanity Fair, which includes all the information in the more recent profile, plus much more about Fink the man:

The NYT’s Story Takes On the Derivatives Cartel: Back in September, the Chicago Fed hosted a symposium on OTC derivatives clearing. (Bear with us don’t fall asleep just yet.) The luncheon keynote was given by Ken Griffin, and summarized by Craig Pirrong, who was there. The NYT’s Louise Story took Griffin’s complaint and elevated it to the status of the main front-page story of the Sunday paper. It’s a long and powerful piece, but also quite one-sided.

The WSJ Is Needlessly Skeptical of GM’s Deleveraging: Sharon Terlep’s story in the WSJ on GM trying to pay down its debt is a great indicator of how the leverage-is-good meme simply refuses to die, even after the financial crisis. The main reason for GM to carry debt is the tax advantages it gets, but the carmaker already has all the tax advantages it will be able to use for the foreseeable future thanks to all the losses it made in previous years. Meanwhile, as GM vividly remembers, carrying a large debt load can be devastating in a cyclical downturn. But Terlep just can’t seem to believe it’s as simple as that.

Jobless Benefits Extension Will Reduce Unemployment, Not Increase It: Much of the commentary on extending unemployment insurance adds up to something reasonably clear. Unemployment insurance isn’t only just from a fairness perspective, it’s also extremely effective as stimulus. Any effect whereby it encourages people to stay unemployed is, in comparison, modest. Which is why it’s very odd to find Kelly Evans, in the WSJ, writing the exact opposite.

The New York Times Demonizes the Bond Market: Did you know there’s a fight to the death going on in Europe? The NYT covers it today, under the headline “Central Bank and Financiers Fight Over Fate of the Euro,” and that’s the clear theme. But blaming speculators for anything going on in Europe is lazy and unproven.

Can Rolling Stone Claim Blankenship’s Scalp?: Could be. Six months after ending the career of Stanley McChrystal, the magazine published Jeff Goodell’s blistering, 7,600-word profile of Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy. Entitled “The Dark Lord of Coal Country,” it’s powerful stuff.

Shorting the “Heard”: In a “Heard on the Street,” the WSJ’s Simon Nixon says the Irish crisis bepeaks “a major weakness of the Basel capital rules. That’s is an interesting idea, but if you look more closely at Nixon’s reasoning, his thesis ends up falling apart.

Still Looking for Good MSM Coverage of Indian Microfinance Crisis: Are we ever going to get a good article on the hugely important microcredit crisis in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh? The WSJ took a stab, but rehearsed facts in the FT’s earlier report. Now the NYT has published its own attempt to cover the story, under the striking headline “India Microcredit Faces Collapse From Defaults.” The story does a good job of bringing us rapidly up to speed on the extent of the crisis but leaves out troves of information available outside the MSM.

Small Deficit — or Government? The most clear-eyed view of the silliness of the deficit commission report came from Kevin Drum, who points out that at heart it says much less about reducing the size of the deficit than it does about reducing the size of the government. The distinction is a crucial one, since the mathematics of the deficit are simple, and overwhelmingly a function of Medicare expenditures.

PR Power: In September, one Benjamin Wey, calling himself “Chinese American Financial Expert Foremost Expert On Chinese Business in U.S.,” put out a press release announcing that he’d engaged a PR company. And it wasn’t just any old PR company: it was 5WPR. Go on, look them up. Amazingly, the gambit worked. Before you knew it, Wey was on Fox Business! He was on TheStreetTV! He was a speaker at the Bloomberg Hedge Funds Asia conference! Wey Who? Read on.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.