No Pulitzers, But Here’s an Audie

Financial news is shut out on journalism's big day

We don’t have anything to do with Pulitzers here at the Columbia Journalism Review, other than bask in their reflected glory. In fact, come to think of it, every time I walk by their offices upstairs I hear the sound of doors slamming.

Still, I’m not the only person to notice that no stories about the financial crisis won in this year of all years. No financial stories won anything. Remember, this was 2008.

I know it was not for lack of effort. Every business news organization I know of clearly recognized the significance of the moment, pulled out all the stops, burned many evenings and weekends, took many risks, and fought very hard to widen the public’s understanding of this greatest financial calamity in two or three generations.

Given that financial series or compilations from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were among the finalists for the Public Service and National Reporting prizes, respectively, the non-awards clearly weren’t an oversight. I’m not going to try to put the Pulitzer juries on the couch, though I’ll talk a bit later about ways to think about this outcome.

But, meanwhile, as a morale booster and a recognition of some truly fine work, let’s take a moment to look back and appreciate great financial stories from 2008. Let’s call them The Audies. It’s not a Pulitzer, but it’s the best we can do. In no particular order:

Behind Insurer’s Crisis, Blind Eye to a Web of Risk,” by Gretchen Morgenson, The New York Times, September 27, which put the word “counterparty” into the popular vocabulary, identified Goldman Sachs as a major beneficiaries of the A.I.G. bailout, and, for no extra charge, put Lloyd Blankfein in and around the New York Federal Reserve at meetings during which this historic backroom mega-deal was formulated.

Goldman, Merrill Collect Billions After Fed’s AIG Bailout Loans,” by Mark Pittman, Bloomberg, September 29, a dramatic follow that named Goldman and Merrill Lynch as among the AIG’s largest creditors in the event of a failure.

The Two Faces of Lehman’s Fall—Private Talks of Raising Capital Belied Firm’s Public Optimism,” By Carrick Mollenkamp, Susanne Craig, Jeffrey McCracken and Jon Hilsenrath, The Wall Street Journal,, October 6, which showed how dishonestly the once-respected bank had operated as it lumbered to a fall, quietly tapping European Central Bank and Fed lifelines, telling investors all was well just after its executives had calculated it needed $3 billion fresh capital, overvaluing its commercial real estate portfolio by more than $10 million, and more.

On Wall Street, Bonuses, Not Profits, Were Real,” by Louise Story, December 17, the Times, a remarkable explanation of how compensation is not a sideshow but the heart of the credit crisis since people did what they were paid to do.

SEC Chief Under Fire as Fed Seeks Bigger Wall Street Role —- Cox Draws Criticism for Low-Key Leadership During Bear Crisis,” by Kara Scannell and Suzanne Craig, the Journal, June 23, completely undressed ex-SEC Chairman Chris Cox and shows that fake regulation is worse than none at all.

Fed Defies Transparency Aim in Refusal to Disclose,” by Mark Pittman, Bob Ivry and Alison Fitzgerald, Bloomberg, November 10. The People of the Box deserve a nod for carrying the weight of the transparency fight against the government.

A Money-Fund Manager’s Fateful Shift; Bruce Bent Shunned Corporate Debt for Years — Then Bought Some of Lehman’s,” by Steve Stecklow and Diya Gullapalli, the Journal, December 8, pried the lid off a truly strange money fund.

Saying Yes, WaMu Built Empire on Shaky Loans,” by Peter Goodman and Gretchen Morgenson, the Times, December 27, which contained, among other things, excellent details about a WaMu mortgage-processing supervisor’s methamphetamine habit.

Borrowers Betrayed,” by Jack Dolan, Rob Barry, and Matthew Haggman, The Miami Herald, a series that dug into the sordid state of the Florida mortgage industry and the near-complete lack of oversight in state licensing. By comparing the mortgage-license database against Florida’s criminal database it found that regulators licensed murderers, and bank robbers—more than 10,000 criminals from 2000 to 2007, showing it’s not too late to explore the criminality that ran rampant in the mortgage industry. Read our Audit Interview with Dolan.

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.

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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.