We’ve seen some pretty good panels on the financial collapse, but the one we hosted the other night on its lessons for financial journalism was, if we do say so ourselves, a cut above.
Convened by The Columbia Journalism Review, with support from The Nation Institute, the panel asked a simple question: “What Now?”
What set the panel apart had something to do with its cast: William Ackman, the noted investor; Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times; economist and author Jeff Madrick; and our Dean Starkman, CJR’s Kingsford Capital Fellow who runs our business-press operation, The Audit, and just wrote a lengthy critique of pre-crash business-press performance. Bill Grueskin, a former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and now the dean of academic affairs at the Columbia Journalism School, moderated.
But mostly it was the ideas that emerged: Ackman on how the access game distorts business news and leads to a pro-management bias and the reflexive dismissal of alternative viewpoints, most glaringly, those of short sellers; Madrick on reporters’ and especially editors’ internalizing prevailing ideological biases; Morgenson on the failure to question conventional wisdom and on finding alternatives to the access-oriented approach; Starkman on the press’s failure to take on big financial institutions and the good things that happen when it does. Grueskin stirred the pot with provocative question, and audience members chimed in with their own.
Excerpts are below, but it’s well worth a listen. To download an mp3 of the conference,
Here’s the video, but be forewarned, the audio quality of some parts is not excellent. In fact, it’s pretty bad. We’re working on a better version:
Here are excerpts from the panelists’ opening remarks:
Gretchen Morgenson is an assistant business and financial editor and a columnist at The New York Times:
I think that this economic crisis and the way the press covered it…is not so unlike the way the press approached other past bubbles that burst. This one just seemed a lot bigger because it involves people’s homes, which is generally speaking, people’s biggest asset…and, certainly, much more money was lost in this debacle…but I would say it’s been similar transgressions in the years leading up to this.
The first casualty in any kind of a boom is a predilection of the press to really buy into the conventional wisdom…When I worked at Forbes magazine, I worked for an irascible editor whose name was Jim Michaels … and he was a guy who was very demanding, and one of the things he taught me how to do was to question the conventional wisdom. That is a very, very important thing to do for journalists, particularly journalists who are at all covering Washington, and I think it is exceedingly difficult because Washington is very much an access-journalism beat, and a lot of this story did emanate from Washington because housing finance is so very heavily regulated that a lot of what really drove this crisis and drove us off a cliff [came from there].