It’s pretty well known that the near-meltdown of the American financial system and economy in 2008 shocked virtually every Very Serious public player and prognosticator, from Alan Greenspan to Wall Street Journal reporters and editorialists and the Street’s own carnival barkers, like CNBC’s Jim Cramer. But why were they shocked?
Obviously, predatory lenders and those reaping billions from underwriting and trading on their scams kept mum, some because they hardly recognized the social consequences of what they were doing. But why didn’t those whose job is to monitor and critique such practices use their inside access to sound alarms? Why didn’t the watchdog hear the “outlier” reporters at small, regional newspapers and a few bloggers who did get the story right, only to end up like trees falling in a vast, silent forest where no one could hear?
No one is better positioned to answer such questions than Dean Starkman. He was an inside player as a business reporter at the Wall Street Journal 1996 to 2004 and, as time went on, an in-house critic and more recently, the supervising editor of the Columbia Journalism Review’s business website, “The Audit.”
I first “met” Dean without knowing him in 2007, when we were both writing critically – he at “The Audit” and I in Dissent and the Guardian — about Rupert Murdoch’s bid to take over the Wall Street Journal. I recognized the rare reporter who addresses and assesses those he writes for and about not just as consumers of his information but as fellow citizens who do care enough about the public consequences of private actions to notice the Invisible Hand’s twitches in ways its apologists usually don’t.
Dean doesn’t charge that business journalists were lazy or corrupt before the crisis. From the moment it broke open, he notes, they did lots of excellent investigative reporting and analysis of virtually every major player’s contribution to the debacle. Yet they never really investigated the failure of one major player: themselves.
That’s why Dean has written his book. It was really begun in 2009, when he and a small team of researchers at the Columbia Journalism Review surveyed what the business press actually wrote, and didn’t write, in the years leading up to the crisis.
It’s a pretty damning survey, and you’ll find it woven into The Watchdog. But the book isn’t prosecutorial; it seeks to understand and explain the failure by drawing a couple of important distinctions.
First, Dean distinguishes “access” journalism from “accountability” journalism. “Access” reporting is necessary to all journalism, because it involves cultivating access to inside sources who would cut it off if the reporter disclosed too much that threatened them. But these days, Dean notes, access journalism is like the “messenger boys” who delivered quick inside information up and down Wall Street; now, it’s driven algorithmically (like the stock market itself) to boost news organizations’ profits, and it suspends all critical judgment of the premises and practices in its mad scramble to get the news out.
“Accountability” journalism is harder, more stressful, and makes enemies. But its investigative reporting can lead to what Dean calls “the Great Story,” which exposes the more systemic rights and wrongs –explaining what predatory lending is, for example, and how it crosses the legal line – in ways that can inspire prosecutions and better regulation. Accountability reporting thus holds financial drivers and their drones up to the light of a public judgment that sees what the Invisible Hand cannot. Accountability reporting’s difficulty in market-driven society is that it “tends to help everyone in general, but no on in particular,” as he puts it.
Second, though, Dean shows that although journalists and citizens can and do make choices to pursue and rely on investigative reporting out of a public-mindedness that confounds the seemingly irresistible seductions and imperatives of access, accountability journalism requires resources and dispositions that most of the internet has yet to provide as reliably as the great old newspapers did when their own market models were flourishing.
Now that print journalism can no longer make enough profit from classifieds and features to subsidize painstaking investigative reporting, the internet hasn’t yet taken up the investigative slack, despite its terrific and unprecedented instantaneity, interactivity, and collaborative potential.
Dean isn’t condemning online journalism; far from it. He’s trying to awaken it to civic challenges that can’t be met simply by letting anyone with a keyboard sound off. Real accountability journalism “is not a medium, like print or TV,” he explains. “It’s not an institution, like The New York Times or the Huffington Post. It’s neither alternative nor mainstream. It’s neither inherently analogue nor digital. It’s a practice.”
Even under the best of conditions, it’s difficult. Can it really be done on sites that remain independent of the “inside” interests that brought us the Great Recession yet that also command enough attention to make powerful players and masses of consumers and investors sit up and recognize that they have a problem? It’s a delicate question, and fortunately, Dean is here with us to tackle it!
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]