Best of 2009: Dean Starkman

Starkman picks his top stories from 2009

Note to Audit Readers: The Audit will be taking off its green eyeshade and pince nez during a holiday break starting December 24 and will return Monday, January 4, 2010.

Meanwhile, enjoy our best work from 2009. This batch from me. Happy holidays.

1. Power Problem The business press did everything but take on the institutions that brought down the financial system. Another note to readers: This 6,400-word review of eight years of mainstream business press coverage before the crisis is unavailable online for the moment. But if you donate, and drop a note to, we’ll rush you a hardcopy. Promise.

2. The List Compiled by the staff of The Audit, the List is intended as a companion to “Power Problem” in CJR’s May-June issue that asks the question of whether the business press, as many of its practitioners claim, provided the public with adequate warnings of the looming calamity—and answers in the negative. We also hope the List, now at 727 stories, will be used as a resource for further research both on the financial press in the run-up to the crisis and its role in the financial system, generally.

3. “He Could See Over” This is a eulogy for Mark Pittman, a Loeb-award-winning Bloomberg reporter who died on Thanksgiving, given by his friend and Bloomberg colleague, Bob Ivry.

4. The Pittman Way The thing that needs to be remembered, especially by financial journalists and the people who rely on them, is that Mark Pittman represented an attitude, a feeling. It was the attitude that drove the journalism and, for me, defined the man.

5. Don’t Dismiss Taibbi Mainstream financial journalism is doing its level, eye-rolling, heavy-sighing best to stuff Matt Taibbi back into the alt-press hole he came from, but he’s not going along with it, and the mainstreamers in any case are making a big mistake.

6. Speedy Kills Back in the summer of 2007, when the world was a cartoon version of today and Dow Jones & Co. was just a steaming leg of lamb in News Corp.’s thought balloon, media writers and other philosophers, including The Audit, were atwitter about the implications of the snapping, snarling owner of the Sunday Tasmanian taking control of the world’s leading monitor of corporate behavior, financial markets, and the economy. Ah, those were the days.

7. Gannett Spins the Hamster Wheel It is disturbing, to say the least, to see American newspapers chewing their own legs off as they try to cope with a long-predicted but now very real collapse in their business. Not long ago, it was the Tribune Co.’s Hartford Courant jettisoning a consumer-news columnist George Gombossy amid a welter of charges that the paper did it to curry favor with advertisers who didn’t care for Gombossy’s gung-ho investigative style. Now the Times’s David Carr tells the story of 288 journalists and advertising employees made to apply for jobs they already had at the Gannett Co.’s Westchester County franchise, the Journal News.

8. Making Honest Choices at Fortune The granddaddy of business magazines says it’s cutting the number of issues per year to 18 from 25, in anticipation of staff cuts both at Fortune and later across Time Inc., The Wall Street Journal’s Shira Ovide reports this morning. Nothing good there, but I found a glimmer of hope

9. Plagiarism Follies at the Courant On the subject of newspapers chewing their own legs off, the Hartford Courant, is in the process of doing just that these days, first having stumbled into a plagiarism scandal, now by issuing opaque statements while disciplining employees for poorly executing a policy that was bad to begin with.

10. Understanding Citi Losses in its Predatory Roots There are a lot of candidates for worst actor during the mortgage flimflam—Merrill Lynch, Lehman, Bear Stearns, Countrywide; gosh, so hard to choose—but Citigroup would have to be way up there. Not that you’d know that from reading the mainstream business press.

11. Now We’re Blaming Lending Laws? The WSJ had an interesting story on how Vermont’s strict lending laws have kept foreclosures down. But it goes off the rails when it tries to assert the same laws have impeded the state’s economic growth. Maybe the lending laws themselves did dampen the state’s growth rate. The problem is, the story presents no evidence to support the claim.

12. Learning Journalism Lessons of the Past As frustrating as it might be as a taxpayer to witness the banking lobby’s Zombie act, it is heartening from a journalism perspective that news organizations are getting into the policymaking plumbing.

13.McClatchy Tightens Ties Between Goldman and Predatory Lenders McClatchy is running a big series on Goldman Sachs that does what other business news organizations have so far failed to do: start from scratch and reexamine where the big bank fits into the mortgage crisis.

14. Regulation: Cool, At Last We appreciate the bizpress’s newfound attention to Washington political fights over regulatory and economic policy, and we’re not afraid to say so.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.