In The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman argues that the business press missed the biggest story of the new century. More specifically,the mainstream business press failed to cover and convey to the public the looming dangers that would profoundly shake up the financial system in 2007.
The following is an excerpt from the opening of the book. A fuller excerpt can be found on the Columbia Journalism Review site.
The US business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.
And that’s the news about the news.
The watchdog didn’t bark. What happened? How could an entire journalism subculture, understood to be sophisticated and plugged in, miss the central story occurring on its beat? And why was it that some journalists, mostly outside the mainstream, were able to produce work that in fact did reflect the radical changes overtaking the financial system while the vast majority in the mainstream did not?
This book is about journalism watchdogs and what happens when they don’t bark. What happens is the public is left in the dark about, and powerless against, complex problems that overtake important national institutions. Few need reminders, even today, of the costs of the crisis: 10 million Americans uprooted by foreclosure with even more still threatened, 23 million unemployed or underemployed, whole communities set back a generation, shocking bailouts for the perpetrators, political polarization here and instability abroad. And so on and so forth.
Was the brewing crisis really such a secret? Was it all so complex as to be beyond the capacity of conventional journalism and, through it, the public, to understand? Was it all so hidden? In fact, the answer to all those questions is “no.” The problem—distorted incentives corrupting the financial industry—was plain, but not to Wall Street executives, traders, rating agencies, analysts, quants, or other financial insiders. It was plain to the outsiders: state regulators, plaintiffs’ lawyers, community groups, defrauded mortgage borrowers, and, mostly, to former employees of financial institutions, the whistleblowers, who were, in fact, blowing the whistle. A few reporters actually talked to them, understood the metastasizing problem, and wrote about it. Unfortunately, they didn’t work for the mainstream business press.
In the aftermath of the Lehman bankruptcy of September 2008, a great fight broke out over the causes of the crisis—a fight that’s more or less resolved at this point. While of course it’s complicated, Wall Street and the mortgage lenders stand front and center in the dock. Meanwhile, a smaller fight broke out over the business press’ role. After all, its central beat—the one over which it claims particular mastery—is the same one that suddenly melted down, to the shock of one and all. For business reporters, the crisis was more than a surprise. There was even something uncanny about it. A generation of professionals had, in effect, grown up with this set of Wall Street firms and had put them on the covers of Fortune and Forbes, the front page of The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and the rest, scores of times. The firms were so familiar, the press had even given them anthropomorphized personalities over the years: Morgan Stanley, the white-shoe wasp firm; Merrill Lynch, the scrappy Irish-Catholic firm, often considered the dumb one; Goldman, the elite Jewish firm; Lehman, the scrappy Jewish firm; Bear Stearns, the naughty one, etc. Love them or hate them, there they were, blessed by accounting firms, rating agencies, and regulators, gleaming towers of power. Until one day, they weren’t.
Critics contended, understandably, that the business press must have been asleep at the wheel. In a March 2009 interview that would go viral, the comedian Jon Stewart confronted the CNBC personality Jim Cramer with the problem. Stewart said, in effect, that business journalism presents itself as providing wall-to-wall, 24/7 coverage of Wall Street but had somehow managed to miss the most important thing ever to happen on that beat—the Big One. “It is a game that you know is going on, but you go on television as a financial network and pretend it isn’t happening,” is how Stewart framed it. And many understood exactly what he meant.
Top business-news professionals—also understandably, perhaps—have defended their industry’s pre-crisis performance. In speeches and interviews, these professionals assert that the press in fact did provide clear warnings and presented examples of pre-crisis stories that told about brewing problems in the lending system before the crash. Some have gone further and asserted that it was the public itself that had failed—failed to respond to the timely information the press had been providing all along. “Anybody who’s been paying attention has seen business journalists waving the red flag for several years,” wrote Chris Roush, in an article entitled “Unheeded Warnings,” which articulated the professionals’ view at length. Diana Henriques, a respected New York Times business and investigative reporter, defended her profession in a speech in November 2008: “The government, the financial industry and the American consumer—if they had only paid attention—would have gotten ample warning about this crisis from us, years in advance, when there was still time to evacuate and seek shelter from this storm.” There were many such pronouncements. Then the press moved on.
It is only fair to point out that, beyond speeches and assertions, the business press has not published a major story on its own peculiar role in the financial system before the crisis. It has, meanwhile, investigated and taken to task virtually every other possible agent in the crisis: Wall Street banks, mortgage lenders, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, the Office of Thrift Supervision, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, compensation consultants, and so on. This kind of forensic work is entirely appropriate. But what about the watchdog?
In the spring of 2009, the Columbia Journalism Review, where I work as an editor, undertook a project with a simple goal: to assess whether the business press, as it contended, did indeed provide the public with adequate warning of looming dangers when it could have made a difference. The idea was to perform a fair reading of the record of institutional business reporting before the crash. We created a commonsense list of nine major business news outlets (The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, Businessweek, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post) and used news databases to search for stories that could plausibly be considered warnings about the heart of the problem: abusive mortgage lenders and their funders on Wall Street. We then asked the news outlets to volunteer their best work during this period, and, to their credit, nearly all of them cooperated.
The result was “Power Problem,” published in the spring of 2009. Its conclusion was simple: The business press had done everything but take on the institutions that brought down the financial system. The record shows that the press published its hardest-hitting investigations of lenders and Wall Street between 2000 and 2003, even if there were only a few of them. Then, for reasons I will attempt to explain, it lapsed into useful but not sufficient consumer- and investor-oriented stories during the critical years of 2004 through 2006. Missing are investigative stories that directly confront powerful institutions about basic business practices while those institutions were still powerful. The watchdog didn’t bark.