On holding the government accountable for the bailout, this historic raid on the U.S. Treasury, Bloomberg, a former business-news backwater, has been unparalleled. The Journal wins scoops from the government; Bloomberg has sued it. It’s just a different approach.
It is not too much to say that Bloomberg’s work, had it run in the Journal, would have changed the public’s understanding of the bailout and the course of the current debate. (Several links are below.) Paulson’s credibility would have been considerably lower; skepticism of his moves much higher. The debate about the relative contributions to the crisis of Wall Street and, say, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, would be over.
This is a failure not of industry but of imagination. The Journal, as an institution, has shown that it clearly understands it is reporting the greatest financial story of our lives. Bloomberg and the Times understand, however, that they are also reporting the greatest-ever financial scandal.
This is about institutional leadership—setting priorities and allocating resources. It’s about recognizing the need for responsibility, accountability, empathy, moral imagination. It’s about knowing when you’ve been had—had your lunch eaten—by the people and institutions you’ve been covering all these years, and being mad about it. It’s about professional pride. Or is that just for the rank-and-file?
Great newspaperman? See, let The Audit explain something: You don’t get to be that by owning a lot of newspapers. If that were true, whoever owned the Thomson chain would be great, and whoever heard of them? Owning several dozen Fond du Lac Reporters and Guelph Monitors just doesn’t get it done. Neither will owning a hundred New York Posts and Sunday Tasmanians.
No, great newspaper men and women got that way because they sensed a broader purpose to the enterprise and built a culture based on those beliefs, one mundane decision at a time. And when the key historical moment arrived—New York Times v. Sullivan, Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, right now—they rose to the occasion. Those owners had a sense of mission, and they were willing to bet the company on it. That’s the difference between Katharine Graham and Rupert Murdoch. She doesn’t need a biographer to tell everyone she was great.
But let’s be clear: News Corp. took over the paper at a low ebb. Mediocre journalism—passionless, unimaginative, overly stylized, formulaic, timid, dull, rote—all too routinely occupied the Journal’s famous page one long before Murdoch and Thomson ever arrived. Indeed, the journalistic torpor cleared the way for News Corp. When Murdoch and Thomson arrived, they openly questioned, even mocked, what Thomson has called the staff’s “fetishization” of the Journal’s page one and long-form journalism. But how would they know what they were missing?
And in fairness to editorial management, the crisis could not have come at a worse time. Murdoch made his unsolicited bid for the Journal’s late, not-great parent, Dow Jones & Co., in the spring of 2007, catching its controlling shareholders, the feckless and unworthy Bancroft family, with their jodhpurs down, just as the crisis was unfurling. It was a full year before Murdoch had won the paper, jettisoned its not-quite-flexible-enough top editor in clear breach of signed agreements, and installed Thomson, a former Financial Times editor, to run the show.
New management came in intent on shaking up the culture, and a period of experimentation was inevitable and even desirable. It’s too bad it had to come during this past year.
Alas, News Corp.’s innovations have gone in precisely the wrong direction. Attempting to become a new New York Times has left the Journal neither fish nor fowl. And was this really the year to shift emphasis away from business news? Misguided attempts to make the Journal “newsier” has just served to elevate commodity-type business stories to multi-column headlines on page one, effectively burying the occasional gems that are being done and adding to the impression of aimlessness. Dismantling the paper’s page-one operation has cost the paper its elegance and writing advantage.
And the Journal’s white-hot pursuit of scoops is also a turn toward insiderism. Scoops are valuable—if you’re a trader. For the rest of us, not so much. But this debate was always a false choice. The Journal has always won scoops. Pushing too hard just leads to scoops that turn out to be wrong, as when the Journal revealed that Citigroup was considering firing its chairman and later splitting up the company. Both those stories were a month ago.
When it comes to Citigroup, we don’t need scoops. We need somebody to probe how it led us all here. Did you know that in 2000, nearly three of four Citi mortgages were made by a subprime unit? I didn’t think so.