Audit Notes: Foreclosure Scandal, Gold Still Not a Record, Facebook Ads

The Washington Post drops this eye-raising info from a Long Island judge who’s not happy with the banks’ actions in the foreclosure scandal:

It is not the only case that has big banks worried. Spinner and some of (his) colleagues in the New York City area estimate they are dismissing 20 to 50 percent of foreclosure cases on the basis of sloppy or fraudulent paperwork filed by lenders.

Dismissing, as in writing down what the borrower owes to zero (UPDATE: At least in one case, that is. The Post notes that the banks are appealing such rulings).

Even if it’s just 20 percent of cases, that’s going to be a bigtime problem for the banks. The Post notes that that particularly area of New York is more severe about Wall Street’s mortgage shenanigans. But you can bet judges across the country are now questioning everything they get from the banks—or they ought to be.

Look at the mess the banks have got themselves in:

In millions of cases across the United States, local judges have wide latitude to impose sanctions on banks, free homeowners from their mortgage debts or allow the companies to proceed with flawed foreclosures. Ultimately, the industry is likely to face a messy scenario - different resolutions by courts in all 50 states.

Steel yourselves, business journalists. You’re going to be covering foreclosuregate for years.

— It’s good to see somebody like David Leonhardt call out the press for getting it very wrong on the “record” price of gold that’s not, in fact, a record:

“Gold sets record high amid economic fears,” The Associated Press recently wrote. “Gold surges to record high,” CNN said. Gold closed Monday “at a record $1,402.80 per troy ounce,” the front page of The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

It’s a good story. Unfortunately, it’s not true, at least not in any meaningful sense.

Gold is at a record only if you fail to adjust for inflation. And you should almost always adjust for inflation. Otherwise, you end up with a series of meaningless records — Gold reaches record high! Oil reaches record high! Lettuce reaches record high! — that depend on the fact that a dollar in 2010 does not have the same value as a dollar did in, say, 1980.

As I’ve said a couple of times now:

This is part of a broader problem in the press. I’ve written about how the media rarely adjust stock prices for inflation, which has the effect of misleading investors into thinking returns are better than they really are.

Why does this happen? Well, for one thing, a lot of journalists are innumerate and a lot don’t know much about history. But for another, darker reason: it’s an easy story. A reporter and editor will inevitably draw better play for a piece if it’s about a “record” than if it’s about how gold is simply up a few bucks. That incentivizes journalists to sex things up at the expense of the truth. This is hardly a phenomenon limited to numbers-based stories.

The bottom line is simple: These stories are misleading. Don’t mislead your readers.

— Check out this stat: Facebook gets nearly a quarter of all display ad (the article is unclear, but I think it means display) impressions on the Web. And it’s grown dominant quickly:

The problem is particularly acute for publishers that rely on professionally produced content. The explosion of social networking means ever more (and cheaper) ad impressions. Facebook now accounts for an astounding 23 percent of all U.S. online ad impressions. That’s equivalent to 297 billion impressions in the quarter. Its share a year ago was 9.2 percent. Facebook served three times as many ads in this year’s third quarter as last year’s.

The problem is, ad rates are going down because the supply of ad impressions is going way up.

With display ad rates pitifully low compared to offline prices, many publishers have turned to more ads. That’s led to the current glut of impressions and a vicious cycle that will only further commoditize ad inventory.

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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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,