After a slow start on AIG, the Journal has bested its rivals in following it. In a November 12 story Serena Ng and Liam Pleven found that a reworked AIG rescue plan would benefit mostly AIG’s irresponsible Wall Street trading partners, who get to keep $35 billion in collateral they pried from AIG earlier and yet still get made whole by selling their junk securities to a new government-backed entity. And here’s my favorite quote (my emphasis):

A person familiar with the government’s rescue plan says it wasn’t specifically designed to benefit individual banks at the expense of U.S. taxpayers and AIG, which will end up bearing the risk of the CDOs. However, officials wanted to give banks sufficient incentives to sell the securities so that AIG could cancel the swaps. (4)

As long as that wasn’t specifically the point, just generally.

The Journal widened its new lead with a story by Ng, Carrick Mollenkamp, and Michael Siconolfi on how AIG has lost another $10 billion not previously known on other bad bets with Wall Street banks.(5)

Too bad the paper couldn’t find room for either of them on page one, but this to me is part of the broader problem. It is the same problem that would lead the paper to make this sweeping claim:

With retirement accounts tumbling and millions of homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages, a realization is dawning on many Americans: The banks, brokerage firms, insurance companies and other players in the financial-services industry have failed them…

and put it on page B1. And get this headline:

Some Consumers Say Wall Street Failed Them

“Some consumers”? This is a joke, right?

To me, that story is your year-end series. Instead, it’s a 1,200 word afterthought. You may not like this vision, but at least I have one.

But this is supposed to be the part about the Journal’s good stuff. Kara Scannell and Susanne Craig wrote the defining story on Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Christopher Cox. We knew he was passive. This story shows him to be certifiably Hooverian. On missing a key call on the Bear Stearns bailout:

In an interview, Mr. Cox said the time of the call changed overnight and no one told him.

On missing another key meeting, at which officials discussed, among other things, a Fed plan to lend funds to investment banks, “a radical shift that took the central bank into the SEC’s turf,” the story says:

Mr. Cox says his participation wasn’t required. “Because [the Bear Stearns loan] was the Fed’s money, they were chiefly responsible for the terms,” said Mr. Cox.

The SEC, which typically has five commissioners in all, had two vacant seats. Paul Atkins, one of Mr. Cox’s two remaining fellow commissioners, was traveling overseas and wasn’t informed about developments. He was furious, a person familiar with the matter says.

Mr. Cox says commission approval wasn’t warranted. He instead worked with his staff on “very intense and rapid” decisions.

The weekend after the Bear Stearns bailout, Mr. Cox headed to the Caribbean for a scheduled family vacation. He worked throughout, he said, staying in touch with SEC staff when needed.

The next week, as Mr. Cox returned from his trip, the Treasury Department unveiled a proposal to overhaul financial-services regulation. It called for dissolving the SEC and handing its Wall Street brief to another federal body. (6)

And a word about the Journal’s Wall Street coverage: No one has been better at getting inside the boardrooms of the fallen firms—Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers particularly. I recognize the industry involved in, and the value of, the three-day Bear Stearns series that ran in May, even if it’s not my cup of tea. The level of detail found in the Morgan Stanley (7) and Lehman (8) coverage is remarkable.

Kate Kelly’s page one tour de force of November 1, 2007, which chronicles
how Bear’s then chief played bridge and smoked pot while two subprime hedge funds collapsed, is a journalistic achievement of the highest order.

This, after she and her colleagues beat the world in explaining the significance of the funds’ collapse in real time. (9)

This year, the Journal’s coverage of Lehman was unmatched. It signaled the bank’s balance-sheet problems in the spring and after its fall dug deep into what its management knew and when it knew it.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.