But regulators don’t operate in a vacuum: Press coverage and regulation (and lawmaking, for that matter: See finance reform) go hand in hand. At its best, as in this case, it can be a virtuous circle—regulators pick up on something the press does or vice versa, and push the story along or press coverage makes it more likely that regulators act. We don’t know what facts the Times dug out on Christmas Eve that the SEC didn’t already know, but we do know the regulator is more known these days for its near-comic haplessness than for its competence and aggressiveness.

At its worst, this relationship between press coverage and regulatory enforcement helps explain the failures of both in the years the financial industry went off the rails. One doesn’t work without the other. The press prepares the ground for regulators—and the other way around.

For the public, the Times was there first. That matters.

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 rc2538@columbia.edu.