But I wouldn’t dismiss these issues so fast. Even beyond the rare conflict-of-interest cases we’ve encountered among media practitioners (e.g. Maria Bartiromo CNBC’s on-air disclosure before a 2003 interview with a Citigroup executive that she owned $45,000 in Citigroup shares) we now have money managers routinely offering widely read, often highly literate, commentary on financial issues in which they may or may not have a stake, which they may or may not disclose. I’m thinking here of a recent, well-done Op-Ed by journalist Michael Lewis and hedge-fund manager and author David Einhorn, but it could apply to many other commentators as well. That poses a more complex set of issues, and some believe, problems.
And it’s worth remembering that this crisis has brought a fresh set of allegations that an overly aggressive business press can do actual harm. Vanity Fair’s Bryan Burrough made an interesting, if not entirely convincing, case last year that CNBC (again, on the cutting edge of ethical issues) played a hand in the collapse of Bear Stearns. I’ve heard word of similar allegations (or are those compliments?) leveled against The Wall Street Journal for its coverage of both Bear and Lehman Brothers.
So, is some systematic discussion about the financial media’s role and performance in order? Absolutely.
Some of us hold that, far from being too aggressive, the business press hasn’t been nearly aggressive enough, particularly in reporting on the fundamental problems, I would say crookedness, that overran the financial-services industry and its Wall Street partners.
The most valuable section of the Tambini paper, I think, is a discussion of the importance of the role of self-definition for news organizations and reporters. What journalists think
their own roles are is a little-understood, but critical determinant what ultimately appears in print. Do they think they’re out to save the world—or the Dow? Do they serve readers as citizens? Investors? What?
Tambini interviewed journalists, executives, publicists, policy types, and others and found:
Some specialist business and financial journalists see their role entirely in terms of provision of information to investors, and their primary responsibility in terms of helping them make successful investment decisions. Some have a very developed sense of how they should serve investors, keeping a mental tally of successful calls and tips, and their implications for investors’ bottom line. Others are much less socialised into a general journalistic view of the world, seeing business journalism as a branch of journalism with the same orientation to the broader public interest as a whole. If a business journalist deals with a story on the ethical practices abroad of a company – a story on child labour or collusion with non-democratic authorities, for example – should the business reporter base news values on whether this is likely to impact the bottom line or on a more general journalistic notion of the public interest? Ultimately, do journalists have a broader professional duty to ensure that corporate malpractice comes to light, or is their role merely to provide whatever their readers want? And are those readers basically to be addressed as real or potential investors or as citizens with a variety of views? All outlets will develop their own ideologically tinged approaches to these fundamental questions. And whilst these abstract questions will rarely be explicitly discussed on news desks, the de-facto orientation of any journalist to these fundamental responsibilities will impact every aspect of her professional practice, in terms of what stories are sought, what news values are accorded to them, and how they are presented.