A Big Story or a “Technicality”?

Sorkin, Nocera, and other intra-newsroom battles over whether the foreclosure scandal matters

I get the sense that the foreclosure scandal has opened up some rifts in at least a couple of newsrooms. Is it a big story? Or is it no story?

Fortune had Duff McDonald (blame the borrowers!) versus Allan Sloan (“There’s one deal for average people, but a different, far better deal for the really big and powerful.”)

The Wall Street Journal’s coverage has been hot (or warmish, more like) and cold, but mostly cold. It gave the story little attention for the first few weeks—as good a sign as any of what it thought, instutionally, of foreclosuregate. Since, weak or bogus front-page stories like “Niche Lawyers Spawned Housing Fracas” (as if its own editorial board could even say with a straight face that anybody but the banks is responsible for this mess) have competed with good stories, usually in Money & Investing, like “Signs of Mistakes Aside, Banks Defend Foreclosures.”

And now we have The New York Times, which has done a lot of excellent work on the story. It’s Joe Nocera going toe to toe with Andrew Ross Sorkin in a video debate. I’m sure you can guess who sings the banks’ tune here, and note for note.

That tune goes something like this, as I wrote three weeks ago:

The pushback on the foreclosure scandal has already begun along predictable lines and amongst the usual suspects. It’s blame the borrowers all over again! Time to wheel out Rick Santelli’s “losers.”

According to variations of this spin, the scandal is a “paperwork” (WSJ) problem involving “clerical errors” (ex-Goldman dude) but at base it’s still about “deadbeat” (John Carney) borrowers hoping to get a “house as a freebie” (Megan McArdle).

Sorkin, alas, touches on each of these to varying degrees. But Nocera argues that mass foreclosure fraud is indeed a big story and a huge problem. He lands the knockout blow right away:

NOCERA: “The banks are calling this quote, a technicality, when it actually has to do with due process and the law, which are only two of the most sacrosanct things in American democracy.

SORKIN (incredulously): You don’t believe it’s a technicality? Do you think that the people who are in their homes deserve to be in their homes? Now I’m on the losing end of this fight, just by default.

NOCERA: That’s a completely different question. But if the person next to me doesn’t deserve to be in their home, does that mean that I, the next-door neighbor can kick them out?

Case closed. Sorkin even concedes that point later:

Which, by the way, I agree with you, from a legal perspective that it is reprehensible that the banks are not actually doing their due diligence and actually doing everything they should…

Where I get a little frustrated is that I think there’s another community, including yourself, that are taking this issue, and blowing it into a larger issue about keeping these people in their homes.

Right. But you can’t separate the two issues (that reprehensible technicality!). You’re going to have to keep people in their homes if you don’t have the legal authority to throw them out. Period.

And more importantly for us, journalists should be trying to figure out how stories fit into the larger context—not trying to make excuses for siloing them off. The robosigners scandal is part of a pattern of systematic—and systemic—wrongdoing on the part of the mortgage industry and its financial backers—is this even controversial at this point? As Nocera points out:

Once again the banks have completely overthrown the idea that they put millions and millions and millions of people into homes knowing that they couldn’t afford them. Now they’re taking these same people and trying to throw them out. There’s no effort, no thought, no nothing given to the idea of creating a loss-mitigation effort to try to keep people in a house…

I reckon most people think the banks have a responsibility here to the people they’ve jobbed, or even to follow the law. Is that so much to ask?

The Sorkin-Nocera disagreement is especially notable because while Nocera is a prominent business columnist, Sorkin is a prominent columnist and a senior editorial leader of the Times business section as head of DealBook, which recently announced a dramatic expansion.

We welcome the additional boots on the ground. I was glad to see that Jesse Eisinger, no Wall Street apologist he, is getting a column over there.

But still, DealBook’s focus is explicitly Wall Street-centric, as a recent Times press release itself says (my emphasis):

Launched in October 2001 as a daily financial report sent by Mr. Sorkin via e-mail, DealBook has since grown exponentially to serve the C-Suite audience, establishing itself as an essential, trusted source of news for industry leaders in finance, banking, brokerage, legal and real estate.

Now, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to say that the C-Suite interest and the public interest aren’t always in perfect alignment (how’s that for understatement?).

We’re optimistic here, so we won’t take that “serving C-Suite” bit too literally.

But it’s worth watching closely.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,