Last week, journalism lost its most incisive, stubbornly accurate, and unfailingly hilarious chronicler of the failings of the mortgage industry with the death of Doris Dungey of ovarian cancer, at age forty-seven.
Never heard of Dungey? Thousands of devoted readers knew her as “Tanta,” the blogger who made up one half of Calculated Risk, the hard-hitting and informative chronicler of the industry that brought us Exploding ARMs, NINJA loans, and other abominations of finance that have brought down millions of homeowners and now the world’s economy. Those readers included a number of journalists, and I’d like to add my own voice to those who have celebrated her role.
Dungey had spent her career as a mortgage banker and liked to joke about her “wrinkled reptilian snout” – a reference to the fact that she emerged from an era of banking dinosaurs before greed, delusion, and deregulation (not necessarily in that order) turned the lending of funds to people who were likely not going to be able to repay them into a rational act.
Following her first and almost fatal bout of cancer, in 2006 Dungey became something else – a journalist. As she recovered at home in Maryland, she had been watching from the sidelines as her industry descended into insanity and almost every business reporter in the nation went along for the ride. So first as a commenter, from her perspective, then a co-blogger with a retired tech executive, Bill McBride, who’d founded Calculated Risk to try to make sense of an increasingly senseless mortgage marketplace, Tanta stepped up to the formidable task. She put to work not only her armament of knowledge from the cubicle maze but also a command of language that allowed her to dissect the obfuscations of mortgage lenders and explain what they were really up to. She was not just the most reliable chronicler of the workings of the mortgage industry; she was, I believe, one of the most irresistibly readable voices in the blogosphere, on any topic.
As much as the mortgage industry was her main target of attack, journalists came a close second – none more than Pulitzer-winner Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times. Not everyone agreed with her take (including, for that matter, The Audit), but Dungey argued that Morgenson’s work, as earnest as it was, oversimplified industry complexities, and was too eager to find villains and victims. Dungey sought to convey an appreciation that the transaction between lender and borrower, mortgage-backed security pool and aspirational property-buyer, lay a grand drama involving complicated motivations among all parties and an irrational faith in technology to tell the truth when every incentive in the system encouraged participants to lie.
Dungey loved language – not just for its power to share truth, but for its own sake. She helped anyone who cared to understand the impossibly arcane terminology of the mortgage business come to terms with its perverse mechanics. From “Delinquencies and Defaults for Übernerds,” one of a 13-part series of tutorials:
I have no intention of exhausting the topics of delinquency and default today. My goal is rather more modest than that; I merely want to introduce to the non-mortgage-backed-security world a few definitions of terms, in hopes that perhaps some of these startling numbers being thrown around in the press can be interpreted. Besides that, it’s too early in the day to start drinking, so we might as well waste our time being educated.
I’m in the company of many journalists in being able to say we couldn’t have covered the mortgage crisis as well without Tanta. One can only hope that her insight and conscience have set a higher standard for business reporting.Alyssa Katz teaches journalism at New York University and is the author of Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us (Bloomsbury).