It Really Is That Bad

A Journal headline finally says it

People ask me if the business press has acted responsibly in describing the panic currently consuming global financial institutions and markets—what with the use of words like “momentous,” “unprecedented,” “historic,” etc.—and I tell them yes. There’s no other way to describe it.

Critiquing the business press right now, as I’ve alluded to elsewhere,is a bit like critiquing the London fire department during the Blitz: All the major institutions are on fire. The press is scrambling to cover them. What are they supposed to do?

Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and American International Group (the seizure of which, for me, is so far the most unbelievable event of them all) were the Buckingham Palaces and London Towers of the financial world.

What words would you use?

The question is understandable, though. Isn’t everything always the “worst-ever”? And don’t we seem to get these “historic” calamities every five years or so? Readers might be forgiven for thinking news outlets exaggerate the importance of what they’re writing about for a lot of reasons but perhaps mostly because they deal with these institutions and events everyday, and they’re too close to the story.

But I don’t think that’s the case this time.

And now it seems to me that a significant line has been crossed with a headline on the front page of this morning’s Wall Street Journal:

Worst Crisis Since ’30s, With No End Yet in Sight

The story is good, with explanations and analysis of what’s happening and why, but it’s the headline that’s important.

They say on Wall Street that no bottom can be reached without what they call “capitulation”—basically when investors give up hope that the market will recover and just sell.

For me, the flat, declarative headline on top of a news story, as opposed to opinion or analysis, on page one of the Journal is a sign that the flagship of the financial press has capitulated.

…With No End Yet In Sight

Believe me, I’m not criticizing the paper—to the contrary. I have no idea if the editors and writers are right. I just trust them because I know the decision wasn’t made lightly.

I was a big opponent of News Corporation taking over Dow Jones & Company, the Journal’s late, not-so-great parent, but this has nothing do with that. It’s true that Rupert Murdoch in April jettisoned a Journal veteran and installed a new managing editor, Robert Thomson, but without exception all the brass below him—Mike Miller, Nik Deogun, Alix Freedman, Alan Murray, Mike Wiliams—are Journal-istas from way back and well-aware of its traditions.

Whatever has happened, they know the Journal is still the standard bearer and agenda setter for the financial world, and they know perfectly well how foolish and damaging to the paper’s credibility it would be to get caught up in the hysteria of the moment and make historical comparisons that a few days later might prove to be unwarranted.

Today, they are doing what newspapers do: declaring and defining a new reality. This particular crisis is worse than all the others, including the tech wreck of 2000 and the crash of ‘87 (odd that the big ones all came after deregulation; hmm), and is comparable only to the one that started in 1929 and was followed by the Great Depression.

In this respect, the headline resembles a famous five-word lead that appeared on page one of the Journal on October 20, 1987, the day after the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 22 percent:

NEW YORK — The stock market crashed yesterday.

Here was the headline:

The Crash of ‘87: Stocks Plummet 508.32 Amid Panicky Selling —- Percentage Decline Is Far Steeper Than ‘29; Bond Prices Surge

I remember talking to an editor who described the heated newsroom discussion about that lead, about whether it was appropriate to use the word “crash.” They did, and it was.

Same goes here, I suspect.

As I’ve said, an evaluation of this emergency coverage of this catastrophe does not mean that the business press won’t have to face its own reckoning once the dust settles.

There will be time later for that discussion, and indeed it’s already begun.

But if anyone was wondering where this moment stands in history, now you know.

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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.