BOOK

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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My sense is that both men are right, and both are wrong. Starkman correctly points out that the press was at its toughest when it was able to cover government investigations. But I disagree with the conclusion he draws — that the press, as an institution, should have been able to keep the pressure on after the government lost interest. In fact, without the day-to-day drumbeat of coverage made possible by official action, the media can only produce occasional enterprise stories that, no matter how good, tend to be treated as one-offs, with little lasting effect. That’s true even if those one-offs appear on the front page of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. As investigative reporter Seymour Hersh said at a 2003 panel discussion, “What makes stories possible is ‘Senator So-and-So says this and that.’” The media do not operate in a vacuum.

Meanwhile, Roush is right to point out the good work the media regularly produced in the years running up to the collapse. But he loses me when he writes, “Isn’t it the job of a journalist to present both sides of a story and to let the public — whether it’s investors, regulators, or consumers — decide what they want to believe?” Leaving aside his binary view of a complex story (“both sides”?), I would argue that it’s the journalist’s duty to uncover the truth, not to “present both sides” and let the poor, befuddled citizen figure it out.

“It’s . . . not enough,” Robert H. Giles ’56JRN and Barry Sussman write in the closing essay, “for news organizations to hobble themselves with a self-imposed fairness doctrine that gives space and time to disinformation.” But Roush is absolutely right that bad journalism always exists alongside the good. There was only so much effect that a well-honed, cautionary story in the Wall Street Journal could have in the era of CNBC and Squawk Box.

Fascinating though the Starkman-Roush debate may be, it is the wider-ranging essays that give Bad News its value. Both Schiffrin and Nobel Prize–winning Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz point out that business reporters, no less than other reporters, depend on sources whose agendas may not be in the public interest. Stiglitz offers the toxic example of bond traders who inveigh against government deficits, and who would in fact benefit personally from the lower inflation and lower interest rates that smaller deficits would bring — a conflict that is rarely disclosed.

Ryan Chittum reminds us that journalists were called upon to cover the unfolding crisis at the very moment that the newspaper business was entering a steep decline. Peter S. Goodman emphasizes a fact we don’t hear nearly often enough: that the rampant borrowing of the past decade was triggered by the stagnant incomes of the middle class. Supporters of public media will be chilled by an account, written by Steve Schifferes ’94JRN, of calls for an investigation into the BBC, whose tough reporting was blamed by some — including media competitors, government officials, and financial houses — for helping to trigger the 2008 British banking collapse. It was, in some ways, a preview of the American Right’s attack on NPR, though on a much larger scale, given the BBC’s outsize role in British journalism.

Did America’s business press miss the story of the century? The evidence in Bad News suggests that the answer is no. The problem was that the hollowness at the core of the housing market, though well reported, never became the consensus view, never got the sort of repetition on the network newscasts, on the cable news shows, on talk radio, and elsewhere that would have been needed to make a real difference.

That’s not a shortcoming of journalism so much as a commentary on human nature. Too many of us wanted to believe, and we did until it was too late.

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and a commentator on media issues for WGBH-TV in Boston and for the Guardian (UK). His blog, Media Nation, is online at www.dankennedy.net.

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