Yes, but…

Reader: The business press, too, is implicated in the current credit calamity

A reader responds to this morning’s post of qualified business-press praise:

Dear Dean,

Some comments.

First, now that the horse has left the barn, I agree that the more sophisticated end of the business press is paying attention and bringing the kind of language of emergency to bear - much as you write.

However, even the sophisticated end of the business press fumbled badly if we turn the clock back several years. Where was the coverage of the many elements that any reasonably astute observer could have used to ‘cover’ the coming of this tsunami?

And, even the ‘horse out of barn’ part applies only to the sophisticated end of business press. There are millions of Americans who do not read WSJ or NYT. Instead, if they follow at all, it’s local news sources and, as we know from reading CJR, those organizations have downsized dramatically — leaving these Americans without the kind of coverage to which you give kudos. So, the press as a national institution has not/is not doing an acceptable job even now.

Next, neither the sophisticated business press nor the stripped down, inexpert local sources have brought to bear journalistic values such as skepticism or accuracy for far too long. Even basic government statistics — GDP, inflation, unemployment — have long since been modified over many Dem and Republican administrations alike so that — now, they are inaccurate. And these are merely the simple stats — not the complicated story of securitization abetted by ‘free’ market, antiregulatory ideology (not to mention greed). The sophisticated business press missed this. I’m not saying there were not, from time to time, some ‘musing’s or even good reportage. But, whether it’s NYT or WSJ or CNBC, etc., there was simply nothing in the business press about this major story that ‘got across’ the dangers to the economy. Our economy has floated on a combination of credit/debt and illusion for many, many years. Where was the coverage of that?

Last, there are bloggers who have done a far superior job — both in journalistically covering this story for many years and in explaining/covering it now. Examples: angry bear, Nouriel Roubini,, Barry Ritholtz, calculated risk, and more.

None of which is to question the sincerity of any journalist, sophisticated or not. The vast majority wish/want to do a good job. My email to you is not about media bashing. Rather, I would like to see an astute observer such as yourself take a big step back and reflect more on the quality of business journalism — then offer some insights, etc that might help us, in the future, understand horses and barns and fires before they happen. To give kudos only now that the horse is out of the barn is simply not good enough.

Point taken. Especially valuable, I thought, was the reader’s observation that good stories may have appeared from time to time, but “there was simply nothing in the business press about this major story that ‘got across’ the dangers to the economy.”

The idea that a story, done once, is “done” is pretty commonly held in newsrooms.

For reference and to keep the discussion going, here are archived Audit looks at now-they-tell-us subprime coverage; how a small periodical got the important Citigroup/Sandy Weill story while the business press was busy writing other things; and the business press’s condescension toward regulators. (Editors pushed back against me on the Citi story. In retrospect, I wished I had pushed harder on my push back to their push back, but maybe I’m just bigger than that, is all.)

We’re tough here on the business press sometimes, but I hope not reflexively so (I mean, we are critics). A lot of our friends work in it. We have a healthy respect for what they do and the stresses they face.

Still, we feel that the Events of 2007-2008, if nothing else, offer an opportunity to explore deeper journalistic issues, both cultural and structural, both in business-press newsrooms, and, especially, in top editorial and business-side suites.

And so we will. We’d like to hear from many voices, including those from the newsroom. I’m at I’ll keep names out of it if you like.

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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.