TA: I ask this of everybody: How did we do covering the run-up to the crisis? The people I’ve talked to, a kind of consensus has formed that we did a very good job warning of the real estate bubble but a much less good job warning about the overleverage of Wall Street and the capacity of the system to melt down.
MM: I think that’s about right. Journalism unfortunately—and even more these days—seems to be backward-looking. It’s important also to think about broader issues, but they’re hard to do. The systemic-risk issue, what can you say? You quote experts saying hedge funds have trillions of dollars that are unregulated, Wall Street’s overleveraged, and all these toxic products out there that could blow if things get really, really bad. But how many times can you say that? I think there’s a novelty factor issue, which is “We’ve already done that” or “There’s nothing new there.”
And investigative journalists, what’s there to investigate per se? It’s almost an opinion or a systemic-approach thing.
TA: How do we do reporting to lay the groundwork for a “black swan”? How can we attempt to pick these things off next time?
MM: In hindsight, there were a lot of things I would have liked to have done. But if I had (that foresight), I probably would have shorted the entire stock exchange (laughs).
I think broader thinking is important—stepping back to do broader pieces and thinking about interconnections. I think one of the issues, particularly for people who were assigned to a beat, is you don’t necessarily step back and see the big picture.
That to some extent is what editors are for, but everybody’s focused on putting out tomorrow’s paper and fighting fires. It’s important from time to time to step back and really give it some thought. And we’ve had people do that, as have others.
One of the things I like to talk about with regard to types of investigative reporting—I’m not sure that’s really well understood, even by top editors within papers—is that there’s two different types: One type is a real investigative-reporting job where you find something that nobody else has really written about. That to me is pure investigative reporting. Backdating was an example of that. CIA rendition. Bad conditions at a VA hospital.
Then there’s what I would call “archaeological investigation,” which is where something happens and you go back and in hindsight say, well, this person did this and people did this wrong. To me, it’s a very valuable form of investigative reporting as well, but I think it’s less of a service to the reader and to society than actually getting out ahead of a problem or exposing a problem that nobody knew existed.
I think we’ve got to do both well.
TA: What should the press be looking for now? This thing is still unwinding and there’s still a lot of important archaeological work, as you nicely put it, to help us understand it and prevent it the next time. But there’s still many more scandals to come out of this thing. There always are when you have something happen of this magnitude. Are there anythings we’re still missing and what should we be looking for?
MM: Any time that there’s turmoil and markets recede is when a lot of the scams come to light, like Madoff. And I have absolutely no doubt there are others—not as big as that, I’m sure. There probably are going to be some other corporate-type scandals, as well.
But I think this whole interaction of government and business and how that works and what good is done and what harm is done is really going to be a critical one the next couple of years. Clearly the government has gotten much more involved in the economy than ever before. After all these years of decrying the Europeans for socialism, it’s become a somewhat nationalized economy. But that brings all kinds of temptations and problems and opportunities with it. How those play out is going to be really, really interesting and important.
* Updated to correct date