Welcome to the List, a comprehensive catalog of relevant stories produced by major business-news outlets on the lending industry and Wall Street during the run-up to the mortgage crisis.
Compiled by the staff of The Audit, the business-press section of the Columbia Journalism Review, the List is intended as a companion to “Power Problem,” a 6,400-word article in CJR’s May-June issue that asks the question of whether the business press, as many of its practitioners claim, provided the public with adequate warnings of the looming calamity—and answers in the negative. We also hope the List, now at 727 stories, will be used as a resource for further research both on the financial press in the run-up to the crisis and its role in the financial system, generally.
How to Read This List: We went into our story with a hunch: that the press, in fact, did not provide adequate warnings. To find out if that was true, we searched for stories that could reasonably be interpreted as significant warnings, with a particular eye for investigative stories into the heart of the problem—predatory lenders and their Wall Street backers (e.g. “Mortgaged Lives: Profiting From Fine Print With Wall Street’s Help,” NYT, 3/15/00). We took several steps, outlined below, to do so.
Warnings come in many forms, of course. In our search, we came across plenty of stories that were useful to readers in all sorts of ways, even if they weren’t investigations (e.g. “Blacks Are Much More Likely To Get Subprime Mortgages,” WSJ, 4/11/05; “Clouds sighted off CDO asset pool,” FT, 4/18/05) and added them. We also found stories that covered lending and Wall Street in depth, and may have been fine stories in other ways, but weren’t really warnings (e.g. “Battle Ready: In Morgan Stanley Rebellion, Purcell Puts Up Tough Fight…,” WSJ4/4/05). We included those, too, to give a sense of what Wall Street coverage during the period actually looked like. We also included bits of context to give a sense of what was happening on the finance beat at the time (e.g. “Spitzer Probes Sub-Prime Mortgages,” NYT, 4/29/05). As we went, we saw that stories fell into identifiable types (e.g. “consumer stories” about bad mortgages, “investor stories” about a housing bubble, etc.) and so placed them into seven categories.
An important point: While the List may seem long, keep in mind that the business press produced more than a half a million news items during this period, so in a sense the stories on the List are drops in a very large bucket. There are no non-lending and non-Wall Street stories on the List, nothing about iPods, the auto business, etc.
The Categories:: Mainly to make the List more readable, we broke stories into categories by type and assigned each type a color:
The headlines mostly speak for themselves, but we’ve sprinkled the List with a few excerpts from the stories and some comments from us as hints and guideposts. Readers should think of red stories as strong warnings and green stories, all shades, as warnings of one sort or another. Other stories provide context. Because something isn’t red or green doesn’t mean it’s bad. Admittedly, cramming seven hundred-plus stories into seven categories is a bit arbitrary—some could fit into several categories—but this helps with the big picture.
Bylines: This project deals with institutional questions, not individual performance. Even so, we’re happy to recognize good work when possible. If you see a byline, that means we think the piece provided information of some sort on brewing problems.
The List contains no links—yet: CJR plans to upgrade the List in various ways as money becomes available. If you’d like to chip in, please consider a donation to CJR, either via this link or by check to Columbia Journalism Review, c/o CJR, Fund for Journalism’s Future, 2950 Broadway, New York, NY 10027. Contributions are tax deductible. Or just subscribe.
We looked at nine business-news outlets:The Wall St. Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, Forbes, Fortune, and BusinessWeek. Searching on the Factiva database, we looked under various screens matching commonsense terms with major Wall Street institutions that ran into trouble and the lenders most closely associated with the subprime meltdown.
Wall Street: AIG, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley. Lenders: Ameriquest, Citigroup, Countrywide, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, IndyMac, New Century, Washington Mutual.
Wall Street: Mortgage backed securities; Securitization AND mortgage; Collateralized debt obligation(s); Derivatives. Lenders: Mortgage lending; Predatory AND lending; Subprime AND mortgages; Bubble AND housing.
Factiva searching is an inexact science and the number of word combinations and institutions is potentially endless. And there were plenty of technical problems, chief among them that the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, and the Financial Times aren’t on Factiva in meaningful ways. The FT’s online archive doesn’t go back before 2004, etc.
Probably the most important step in the search was to ask all the news organizations for help in finding their best work. All but The Washington Post (which expressed regrets) pitched in. We are grateful for the cooperation we received.
Finally, we came up with a list of reporters whom we had come to know as producing the best stuff and did a final cross check using their names.
Is the List airtight? No. Does it fairly present the best warning coverage about Wall Street and subprime lenders during the period? We believe it does.
The List Remains Open. We welcome corrections, suggestions, and/or candidates for inclusion. Please send them to email@example.com. We also welcome your reaction to “Power Problem,” our analysis based on the List, either by email or in comments online. 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.