“…The last great newsman. He may be the greatest newspaper man of all time”—Michael Wolff, author of The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch, on Murdoch, in an interview with Marketwatch, December 1, 2008.
The Wall Street Journal, once the dominant force in financial news, is failing, and failing badly, in key aspects of its coverage of the credit crisis and the financial bailout.
This isn’t all Rupert Murdoch’s fault, just partly. But for all our sakes, the paper needs to find its way, and soon.
Senior Journal leadership may dismiss this idea, but at least a few among the rank-and-file have expressed to me a gnawing sense that paper has buried itself in the weeds of this unprecedented financial story and lost sight of the big picture. That’s certainly my view: its coverage is too incremental, overly geared toward those already in the know, and too willing to trade arms-length scrutiny for access. At this point, for instance, the paper isn’t so much as covering the Treasury Department as channeling it.
The problems are two-fold, as I see them. The paper’s leadership has not shown the vision needed to stop, take a deep breath, and take control of the narrative. Absent has been an effort to explain in a coherent way what just happened—how a few publicly traded companies managed to siphon a trillion dollars from the U.S. Treasury and tip the world into recession—and who is to blame.
Let’s put this part on Murdoch and his top editor, Robert Thomson. Sending the staff to chase news like so many hamsters on a wheel is not the same as editing a great newspaper. Neither is festooning page one with the news everyone else already has. The net result is that much great work is lost in the news gusher.
But this is not all about Murdoch, not by a long shot. Old Journal formulas—inside-the-boardroom narratives—seem anachronistic now. Old rules—not revisiting a topic once it has been “done” in a single story—should be irrelevant. I wonder, too, if the Journal’s general we-don’t-rake-muck attitude quite fits the moment.
As it is, the paper offers flashes of brilliance, of which its Lehman and Bear Stearns coverage are prime examples. But these are pockets of resistance. What is needed is a general mobilization.
This is not, strictly speaking, a matter of opinion. The record speaks for itself, and we’ll get to it. But for the shorthand version of this argument, readers might want to examine the different approaches represented by the forthright, relentless, and relevant New York Times series, “The Reckoning,” which has hammered at regulators, rating agencies, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, American International Group, yes, even President Bush, the person actually in charge, and The Journal’s listless recent series, “The Fallen,” which chronicles the lost fortunes of the rich (!?).
The Journal series, which has zero relevance for public policy purposes, fails to deliver even compelling narratives—supposedly the paper’s strong point. The best inside information we learn about John Bucksbaum, the mediocre mall heir who blew up mall giant General Growth Properties, is that he is an avid bicyclist. A Mexican cement mogul comes across in a Journal profile with all the grit and pluck of an economic indicator.
He has long come across as a hands-on corporate boss. A decade ago, displaying a battery of computers to a visitor, he demonstrated how he monitored the heating temperatures of industrial kilns an ocean away in Spain.
This is your capstone series in this of all years? I hope not.
Last month, the Times exposed Robert Rubin’s involvement in increasing Citigroup’s risk, just as Rubin and his disciples are set to steer economic policy in the incoming administration. The Journal follows with an interview with Rubin a week later. That’s the difference. One is a public service; the other is just a very good newspaper story. One sets the agenda; the other follows it. One doesn’t need Rubin’s cooperation; the other does.
Yes, the Journal did its compensation story first (1), but it was hardly the last word and so much has been learned since then.
Also showing surprising grit has been Bloomberg News. Unheralded, gloves-off, the wire service has remorselessly hammered at the financial crisis’s heart—right on Wall Street. A Bloomberg expose documented Goldman Sachs’s toxic securities operation under Hank Paulson’s tenure. The Journal described how Goldman “won big’ on the mortgage meltdown.(2)