“Anatomy of the Morgan Stanley Panic,” by Susan Pulliam, Liz Rappaport, Aaron Lucchetti, Jenny Strasburg and Tom McGinty, the Journal, November 24, a gripping account of traders tearing each other to shreds; somewhere Karl Marx is laughing over this one.
“Investigating AIG: The Beautiful Machine,” by Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Brady Dennis, the Washington Post series in December explained—in stories clear enough for the non-financially-inclined but with the depth and new information to keep the rest interested—the rise and fall of the small outfit inside AIG that gambled away the company’s future.
A few observations:
First, it is bizarre, to say the least, that I can offer free links to most of these stories, all produced at great expense and with great skill by unraveling news organizations. Something is wrong with this picture, and it’s got to change.
Second, Pulitzers aren’t everything.
But third, and on the other hand, Pulitzer juries are interesting because they represent an informed and intelligent audience that does not live and work in the business-press space. Think of them as the Jon Stewart audience.
But it might be more productive to think of them as people who approach business and financial stories not as consumers or investors, but as citizens. This is a crowd, I suspect, who might approach business news this way: “No, I actually don’t want to get into the weeds of the credit-default swaps market or FAS 157—just like we don’t want to learn about catalytic converters, heart stents, or the melting tendencies of Arctic sea ice. FAS 157 is your thing. Don’t make it our thing. What we need is the big stuff; the big changes on your beat—the financialization of the economy, for starters, and the fact that incomes are being grossly redistributed in all the wrong ways. We need to know who’s strong-arming the government, who’s bilking customers, who’s deceiving investors, which brand name, which Super Bowl halftime sponsor, is actually a bad actor—who’s running amok on us, basically. Then, when things are breaking down, at least we’ll know why. But if things are working right among directors, executives, raters, regulators, policymakers, and, yes, journalists, maybe they won’t break down in the first place.”
I’m guessing here, but I think the bar is going to be high for any after-the-fact reporting, particularly when the facts are so bad, no matter how well done.
But business staffs should take heart, and take pride in the great work above and others we missed. It’s not about recognition anyway, really.
Here’s an idea: Think of the 2008 Pulitzers as a nudge toward big-picture, investigative, public-service reporting that takes on systemic problems and powerful institutions. Forget about traders and other cognoscenti once in a while. It’s what you want to do anyway, and it’s what most readers want to read.