And a Dollar Short

by Dan Kennedy
Bad News: How America’s Business Press Missed the Story of the Century
By Anya Schiffrin, ed.
The New Press, 240 pages, $24.95
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Bad News: How America’s Business Press Missed the Story of the Century, Edited by Anya SchiffrinThis April, the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting was awarded to Jesse Eisinger ’92CC and Jake Bernstein of the nonprofit news organization ProPublica for exposing the exotic financial instruments that led to the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s. It was good and important work. And it’s no knock on ProPublica to wish such reporting had come years earlier. At such a late date, though, this wasn’t even “shooting the wounded,” as the old phrase has it. This was digging up the corpses to make sure they were still dead, then displaying their fetid, rotting carcasses in the village square.

Could journalism have done more to prevent the Great Recession rather than just explain it after the fact? Could the press have stopped the plague of mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and no-income, no-asset loans?

Those questions animate Bad News: How America’s Business Press Missed the Story of the Century. Edited by Anya Schiffrin ’00JRN, the director of the International Media, Advocacy, and Communications program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, the book draws on — among other things — a 2010 conference at Columbia and work published in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR).

The provocative subtitle notwithstanding, the authors represented in Bad News do not uniformly agree that the business press missed the story. Even Dean Starkman ’84JRN, perhaps the most withering critic, writes that the press’s responsibility for the financial collapse is a lot closer to zero percent than 100 percent. Yet most of the authors indulge in the idealistic and perhaps naive view that the media should have done more, and that if they had, then at least some of the damage could have been forestalled.

Dueling essays by Starkman and Chris Roush, founding director of the Carolina Business News Initiative at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, form the heart of Bad News. Starkman presents the results of a study he conducted for the CJR showing that in the early part of the last decade, when federal authorities were investigating predatory lenders, the media responded with tough coverage. But “sometime after 2003, as federal regulation folded like a cheap suitcase,” Starkman writes, “the business press institutionally lost whatever taste it had for head-on investigations of core practices of powerful institutions.” Rather than exposing malfeasance, Starkman adds, journalists gave us gooey features about such soon-to-be-infamous companies as Bear Stearns and Countrywide Financial, and consumer-oriented reporting on the looming housing bubble. The latter were of some value, he says, but fell well short of the investigative work needed to expose the dangerous and criminal practices inflating that bubble.

Roush, by contrast, looks back at the past decade of business journalism as an unalloyed triumph — an era that “produced more first-rate business journalism than any other decade since the creation of mass communications.” The problem, he argues, is that “the average consumer has not wanted to understand what the business media were telling them or simply chose to ignore the warning signs.” And he offers numerous examples of good and better-than-good journalism exposing the underlying causes of what would later become a full-blown crisis.

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