Sorry, Porn Didn’t Cause TK Regulatory Failure

A misleading Atlantic headline and a misdirection on what's wrong with oversight

Here’s an example of one of the all-time most-annoying Web journalism tricks. Daniel Indiviglio at The Atlantic’s site has this headline:

Did Porn Cause the Oil Spill in the Gulf?

His lede? (emphasis mine):

No. But regulators looking at pornography, doing illegal drugs and other bad behavior explains part of the reason why the government failed to do its part to prevent the disaster.

Way to mislead your readers in the name of search-engine optimization and tabloid luridness (you’d be dismayed how much “dog porn” search traffic this great 2006 Audit post by Liz Cox Barrett brings in even today). This is The Atlantic for crying out loud.

This follows and references another similar Indiviglio post a month ago:

Did Porn Cause the Financial Crisis?

In that case he actually stood behind the headline. Really!

The above headline might seem like a joke. It isn’t. Senior staffers at the Securities and Exchange Commission were surfing Internet pornography when they should have been policing the financial system.

That’s ridiculous. Far be it for me to defend the SEC, but fewer than 1 percent of its staff were busted for porn. I doubt it’s more of a problem there than it is in the private sector, which doesn’t have to report its porn busts. And anyway, what excuse for the other 99 percent?

But, hey, you could play this game all year with every government agency and corporation (don’t forget us nonprofits!) in the country and rack up the hits:

— Did Porn Cause the Flash Crash? Some guy at a Chicago hedge fund probably sent a NSFW email at approximately 1:20 CDT on May 6.

— Did Porn Sink the Euro? Many people in Greece, Portugal, and Spain look at porn. PIIGS, indeed.

— Did Porn Cause the Oil Spill (Private-sector edition)? BP and Transocean workers have an insatiable appetite for drilling.

Or let’s put it another, less SEO-friendly way:

— Did Cause the Crisis? Many government officials browsed power-tool offerings on the clock.

And my personal favorite:

— Did Minesweeper Blow Up the Financial System? OTS examiner thought for sure that corner tile was empty.

This is hardly a blog-only phenomenon, of course. Much of the press did a not-so-good job with the SEC porn story last month. First of all, it was a two-year-old story recycled for political purposes. Second, many hyped the titillating porn-at-the-SEC-during-the-crisis connection, but few pointed out that less than 1 percent of staff was actually busted (props to Computerworld for being one of them).

But the drive for traffic in a pennies-for ads online world worsens this problem. One of the tried-and-true get-me-some-traffic blog-headline formulas goes something like this: Ask a provocative question in your headline that you can’t come close to proving or that is utterly false and when somebody calls you on it say “I was just asking a question, dude.” Or just admit you were bluffing, as Indiviglio does in his latest “Porn” post.

In this case, the misdirection obscures the real problems, which were in many cases created intentionally, not by weakness of the flesh.

Indiviglio actually asks this:

Of course, the real question here is why government regulators don’t just fail to do their jobs, but strive to fail so spectacularly?

Put aside the fact that the exact same could be asked of Indiviglio’s old colleagues on Wall Street and understand that there’s been this big, well-funded, thirty-plus-year anti-government campaign that delegitimized the very premise of regulation (not to mention government).

It’s no accident that George W. Bush, say, put a guy from the International Arabian Horse Association in charge of the critically important FEMA. Or that he put a lobbyist for the banking industry in charge of banking regulation at the OCC. Then there’s the timber lobbyist Bush picked to head the Forest Service. And remember that ex-oil CEO he picked to head his secret energy task force and to be his vice president. Does anyone think Christopher Cox—he of the epic “The last six months have made it abundantly clear that voluntary regulation does not work”—was lighting a fire under anybody’s hind end? And on and on.

And this was something of a bipartisan affair. Clinton, while hardly pushing the anti-government agenda like Bush, played a major role in gutting financial regulation (and staffed the government with the usual party hacks and cronies, rebuffing Cassandras like James L. Bothwell and Brooksley Born and leaving derivatives to the Wild West (sans marshal), ending Glass-Steagall, and renominating Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan as Fed chairman.

If you’re in power and you think government can’t possibly work and you actively seek to undermine its efficacy, you can’t feign surprise at your self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you’re in the press, you shouldn’t ignore that while using misleading headlines to get traffic.

Hey, maybe it works:

Ad Pages, Revenue Swell at The Atlantic

But this is the 153-year-old Atlantic, not The Huffington Post.

(ADDING: For non-journalists, the TK in my headline is journo-speak for “to come.” In other words, it’s a placeholder until you figure out what to write in there.)

Further Reading:

Audit Interview: James L. Bothwell. The author of a definitive ‘94 GAO derivatives report talks about industry pushback and financial-press complacency.

Angelides, The Audit, and Unfair Lending: An ex-regulator’s testimony to the commission needs examining.

Gensler, Derivatives, and the Causes of the Crisis: Several critical points for coverage of Wall Street and reform.

Letting Sleeping Watchdogs Lie: The business press rediscovers regulators.

Spitzer’s Ghost: The public record on lending hangs over the business press

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.