Embedded Business Press Misses the Story of the Century

Embedded Business Press Misses the Story of the Century
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The severe economic crisis now gripping the United States -- and hence the entire world -- has been labeled by the Paper of Record as the "financial equivalent of 9/11."

In its severity and overall impact, the comparison may hold true. But when it comes to media coverage, a far better analogy can be made to the invasion and occupation of Iraq undertaken in the wake of the terror attacks.

Just as our mainstream news reporters failed to do their job in alerting us an impending and fairly obvious disaster prior to the war in Iraq - and then 'embedded' themselves with the very people they were supposedly reporting on during the invasion and subsequent occupation -- so too did our complaisant business press, which by and large missed the story of the disaster now threatening the very pillars of the global capitalist system itself.

Complicity, careerism, access, ratings, deregulation, glory, money, corporate and conglomerate media... the reasons behind our pusillanimous press coverage of the run up to the financial meltdown are much the same as those underlying the run up to war - and so are the results. Business reporters 'embedded' on Wall Street -- as enamored of titans of commerce as their Pentagon press peers were with Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell - are now piling bad information on top of no information. Once again, we-the-people are paying the price in treasure and sadly, in some cases, blood.

Of course, I'm not alone in pointing fingers. As the AP's David Bauder recently reported, "some of the nation's top financial journalists believe reporters dropped the ball as the nation's economy tumbled toward crisis mode."

Sixty-two of the one hundred journalists surveyed were critical of the media's work, Bauder noted, "suggesting there was an over-exuberance about the economy and a failure to connect the dots as troubles began." The journalists -- mostly from organizations such as CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the like -- differed on who deserved the blame for the crisis: 45 said banks and 44 said regulators. Shockingly, "Only two believed that the media was mostly to blame, and nine pointed their fingers at consumers," Bauder reported. One anonymous journalist's comment was most telling: "Everyone dropped the ball. But the media does not have nearly as much blood on its hands as the financial industry and government." Another noted, "The media, like real life, is full of a diversity of opinions and stories. The warning signs were there, and stories were written about the looming dangers. I find it offensive that there's a notion that the entire business press can be criticized for a failure to see the future once we're in a troubled climate."

Incompetence and defensiveness aside, however, it's apparent that the business press is now busy playing catch up. (The PBS documentary series Frontline, for example, just investigated "the causes of the worst economic crisis in 70 years and how the government responded" while examining "what Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke didn't see, couldn't stop and haven't been able to fix."

And in fairness, it's true that there's been one finance-related emergency after another over the last few years - at precisely the same time as an equally deadly financial crisis has been decimating newsrooms. Nonetheless, there has been some excellent journalism about the financial mess published and broadcast before, during, and after the crisis emerged. The right questions were asked - and answered - and the stories were all told... but one had to look hard for them amidst all the cheerleading and happy talk. So when looking for the roots of the subprime mess, trying to figure out what to do with what little money you may have left, or seeking to understand where all those trillions in tax dollar bailouts will actually be spent, what are the best and the worst sources of reliable economic and financial news you can use? Here's a quick guide:


Unsurprisingly, print reporters have generally done a better job of covering the many complexities of credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and other economic esoterica, since the medium is more naturally suited to in-depth, nuanced reporting. Broadcast entities, with few exceptions (see below) have skimmed the surface at best. But for sheer bombast, unmitigated banality, superficial analysis and questionable embedding, cable business channels such as CNBC and Fox Business Network are at the fore. Jim Cramer and his accurately named "Mad Money" program lead the way -- to the bottom. One can argue that "Mad Money" is not journalism, but instead some twisted form of reality-based entertainment merely masquerading as such - but then so is much of what passes for programming on these hyped-up offspring of the boom years.

Other CNBC 'reporters,' such as the so-called 'Money Honeys' Maria Bartiromo and Erin Burnett, are equally embedded and invested in the success of those they cover.

Meanwhile, the Fox Business Network - which brayed that it was more "friendly' and "pro-business" than CNBC -- has been even more abysmal. FBN vice president of business news Alexis Glick said at its launch that the cabler was seeking "an audience of people out there who want to get business news in a way that is friendly, interesting, fun, and that's going to help you achieve the things that matter most to you. And part of that is success, money and happiness. It's the American dream." Glick's comments complement those of UberBoss Rupert Murdoch, who complained that rival CNBC reporters "leap into every scandal. There's an atmosphere to it that's negative." Now that the dream has morphed into a nightmare, Murdoch's minions still bring you "Happy Hour" business reporting direct from a saloon.

CNN also deserves its share of brickbats, most notably for devoting two hours to a primetime special that included the Wall Street-funded, anti-deficit documentary "IOUSA" and a subsequent discussion with a handful of guests, all of whom agreed that reducing the national debt must be an urgent priority -- at a time when most informed observers feel economic revival requires very large deficits even to begin.

Despite the many failings of television business reporting, however, a larger portion of the blame for bad reporting must be laid at the feet of the major print organs and self-styled "capitalist tools" such as the (Murdoch-owned) Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune and Business Week, which supposedly specialize in sophisticated reporting on economic matters. With few exceptions, they completely missed the boat on the biggest financial story in decades, leading one to wonder whether business news magazines will soon officially leave the news behind, and go the opinionated way of such once-prominent newsweeklies as Time, Newsweek and US News.


There were also, however, many shining examples of journalists doing their jobs well, asking tough questions, getting surprising answers, and presenting them to a world still stuck inside a frothy financial bubble about to burst. In some cases they toiled at major outlets such as the New York Times and the Financial Times, where columnists including Paul Krugman, Joe Nocera, the estimable Martin Wolf and others all did their best to call attention to the gathering storm. But in most instances they were outliers - bloggers, researchers, and even filmmakers -- people who didn't usually specialize in business reporting or even analysis. Veteran gadfly and self-styled News Dissector Danny Schechter was first, and is still foremost, among them.

Schechter (DISCLOSURE: my colleague and business partner at the Globalvision) was so far ahead of the curve that he managed to research, shoot and edit an entire documentary predicting the coming collapse (In Debt We Trust: America Before the Bubble Bursts) literally years before it unfolded. Schechter, who blogs at MediaChannel's News Dissector site, also began writing about the coming crisis daily (some said obsessively,) while simultaneously aggregating information from a wide range of other sources, including many specialized economics blogs. When he began, many within progressive media circles were puzzled at Schechter's newfound focus and wondered why he had departed from his earlier emphasis on "politics" - as if the economic shenanigans and subprime crimes he was detailing had no political dimensions!

There are many other examples of reporters who got it right. Vanity Fair, has seen some excellent analysis from the likes of Nobel Prize winner Joe Stiglitz and Bethany McLean of Enron fame; Dean Starkman, who writes and edits The Audit for the Columbia Journalism Review, has done a great job not only explicating but also holding other media to task for its failings; and Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, whose blog Beat the Press features insightful commentary, is also highly recommended. In addition to his own economic reporting, Baker's blog often takes on such MSM stalwarts as the Washington Post, the New York Times and NPR for their many failings.

Speaking of NPR, one of the best pieces of reporting anywhere - but especially from the broadcast media - came last May from an unlikely source: Ira Glass's Polk Award-winning program This American Life.

Entitled "The Giant Pool of Money, this special, produced in a special collaboration with NPR News, explained in simple terms what the housing crisis had to do with the turmoil on Wall Street. Glass & Co. followed in October with another excellent program called "Another Frightening Show About the Economy."

Dan Gillmor recently explained "The Media's Role In The Financial Crisis" on another blog, Talking Points Memo. In his post, Gillmor detailed the many ways that "journalists were grossly deficient when it came to covering the reckless behavior, sleaze and willful ignorance of fundamental economics, much of which was reasonably obvious to anyone who was paying attention, that inflated the housing and credit bubbles of the past decade." He rightly condemned the media for "their frequent cheerleading for bad practices -- and near-total failure to warn us, repeatedly and relentlessly, of what was building" and added that they have only "made a bad situation worse."

Gillmor also lauded several journalists and news organizations that he thought "stood out in retrospect for having seen what was coming," including "almost alone among the Washington press corps," the Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) newspaper group's Washington Bureau. Finally, he lambasted the American Journalism Review for arguing recently, that "the press was all over the housing/credit mess before it blew up."

So yes, there was, as noted above, some good journalism out there on the subject - even in such discredited media outlets as the business newsweeklies, New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. The problem, however, was that it "was overwhelmed by the happy-face, herd coverage, usually laced with quotes from people who stood to benefit from the bubble's continued inflation," as Gillmor phrased it. Who among us has forgotten the many stories about happy homeowners, the "reality" programs about flipping homes and becoming instantly wealthy, the endless chatter about home values that would never stop rising? "And even when the reporting was solid, which was rare enough, news organizations didn't follow up in appropriate ways," Gillmor concluded. " If we can foresee a catastrophe, it's not enough to mention it once or twice and then move on."

Consider, in closing, this Chicago Tribune article from 2005, when David Jackson of the Chicago Tribune reported on the growing problem of home mortgage fraud in Chicago's poorest communities. Jackson warned that "A white-collar crime wave is raking Chicago's poorest communities, robbing vulnerable families of their homes and draining billions of dollars from the U.S. economy." The problem, Jackson noted presciently, "now threatens to become a national financial epidemic."

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