MM: It’s always tricky when you’re in a high-profile type of investigative situation and you get pushback, but the paper stood behind us and it was clear that it was right. People were getting fired and companies were admitting it. It became quickly obvious that there were hundreds of companies that had done this.
The editorial page has got its own opinion, and they’ve got a right to their opinion. I think it’s delusional to think that these executives didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong. They clearly did in 90 percent of the cases at least. But they thought they could get away with it, and for a long time they did.
The editorial page’s argument was that the accounting rule was silly and therefore violating it wasn’t really that serious. But you can’t have people going around making up their own accounting rules. “I don’t like this rule; I’m going to ignore it.” It’s just a recipe for chaos. It’s a completely nonsensical approach. If you don’t like the accounting rule then lobby to change it, but don’t not like it, violate it, and then pretend it was okay.
TA: A broader question: What’s the climate for investigative reporting in general? Do you sense it’s getting more difficult or there’s less ability to do investigative reporting on corporations with all the cutbacks?
MM: (Everybody) knows that to do investigative reporting is somewhat expensive and people-intensive, time-intensive.
So far I’ve been blessed with editors that understood that and understood that sometimes it’s going to take weeks and sometimes months. My contention is what is it that people remember every year? They read something really great in the newspaper or magazine and maybe they’ll resubscribe.
It’s just a question of balance and how much time should people be allowed and how much expense is it. There also has to be a recognition on the part of management that you’ve got to drill some dry holes when you’re prospecting for oil.
Fortunately, at some of the bigger newspaper and magazines there’s still some pretty good investigative journalism going on, but my sense is there’s less of it. There’s pressures to just cut some of that and it’s something the reader doesn’t know they’re missing necessarily until they don’t get it.
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.