The Language of Calamity

The business press finds its voice in covering Wall Street's implosion

Even casual business press readers by now know that what is happening on Wall Street is new, unusual, historic, unfamiliar, unknown. Let’s be clear: what is happening is financially catastrophic for some but extremely dangerous for all.

The extinction of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch as independent concerns was unthinkable only a short time ago. But then so was the insolvency and nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—also unthinkable. And so, for that matter, was the extinction of Bear Stearns. These were pie-in-the-sky, doomsday scenarios. Now they are happening.

The business press is doing an able job—The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, particularly—as it scrambles to both keep up with a howling blizzard of events and to convey the enormity, sweep, and scope of what it is describing.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to appreciate the language itself, the likes of which we haven’t read in the business press in our lifetime:

Crisis on Wall Street as Lehman Totters

And that’s only the first line of a headline that dominates the Journal’s website. Here’s the second line:

Merrill Seeks Buyer, AIG Hunts for Cash

Lehman’s viability has been the subject of heated debate for months. Still, though, its actual failure is a shock. And to have Merrill Lynch —a Wall Street stalwart, loved, hated, but always a key financial-page protagonist —just vanish is to me the biggest stunner of them all. I’m sure some people predicted this, but not many.

And now, American International Group, probably the most successful insurance company of all time, is tottering as well. It simply beggars belief. How A.I.G. made its money is another story; in the view of some it took advantage of weak state regulation to degrade the insurance business with its hardline approach to paying claims.

But now even that money machine is in trouble.

A Momentous Weekend for American Finance


In case anyone is wondering, we are rapidly moving beyond worst-case scenarios.

Here’s the Times, with my emphasis:

In one of the most extraordinary days in Wall Street’s history… The moves came after a weekend of frantic negotiations……


Coming just a week after the government took control of mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the magnitude of the industry’s reshaping is staggering: two of the most powerful firms on Wall Street, Merrill Lynch and Lehman, will disappear.

These are not tabloids, but our leading financial publications. And believe me, there is not a word of hyperbole in this morning’s papers.

It should be said, the business press, led by the Times and the Journal , has covered the emergency with skill, energy, sophistication and grace under pressure. So let’s name some names and acknowledge heroic work by Matthew Karnitschnig, Carrick Mollenkamp and Dan Fitzpatrick, who scored a massive scoop on Bank of America’s deal to buy Merrill, along with Susanne Craig, Serena Ng, Liam Pleven and Peter Lattman at the Journal; the indefatigable Andrew Ross Sorkin, Ben White and Jenny Anderson, Gretchen Morgenson and Mary Williams Walsh at the Times; Yalman Onaran and Craig Torres and others at Bloomberg; and Francesco Guerrera, Krishna Guha, and Greg Farrell at the Financial Times. I’m sure there are many more. Pass them along at, and I’ll add them to the honor role.

I believe the Wall Street implosion has profound implications not just for the financial firms, but the financial press itself, implications we’ll be exploring in the coming days and weeks here on The Audit. This happened on its watch. But there will be time for lessons, ruminations and blame-assignment later.

For now, it’s time to acknowledge good work and pause before considering how we got here and what is next.

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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.