What is financial journalism for?

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What is financial journalism for?

Postby Kevin » Tue Jan 13, 2009 5:25 pm

From the Columbia Review of Journalism, a critical discussion of the role of journalism in the financial meltdown.

Essay, The Audit — September / October 2008
Boiler Room
The business press is missing the crooked heart of the credit crisis
By Dean Starkman

David Brooks, George Will, and other cultural conservatives—let’s call them behavioralists—have felt free to blame the unraveling of the financial system on some sort of spontaneous mass deterioration of public morals. Structuralists like myself, meanwhile, argue that people didn’t change, the marketplace did. Most journalists, I would argue, retreat to the mushy middle: the there-is-plenty-of-blame-to-go-around school, a theory of more generalized cultural decay that includes undisciplined lenders as well as irresponsible borrowers...

It’s worth briefly running through what we know to provide a foundation and framework for future reporting. It is hard to understand the global credit crisis—particularly the wreckage in the secondary-mortgage market—without pausing to consider the record of extravagant crookedness that underlies it...

Follow the link above and take a look. It's a really good article with far more great points than I can reasonably quote under fair use.

But here's a bit more as a taste...

It seems to me that well into Year II of the Panic, the business press is in the process of making the same mistake it made in the run-up to the debacle: focusing on esoteric Wall Street concerns and ignoring the simplest, most basic, but most important one—the breathtaking corruption that overran the U.S. lending industry, including and especially the brand names, and the extent to which Wall Street drove that corruption. Let’s just call it a case of over-sophistication. Its persistence, however, will only impede journalists’ ability to cover this thing going forward.

In May, The Wall Street Journal published an account by reporter Kate Kelly of the final days of Bear Stearns. The three-day series, complete with pen-and-ink illustrations, was widely praised and was followed by others, notably Brian Burrough’s account in Vanity Fair that, controversially, raised questions of whether short-sellers, aided by overheated speculation on the financial network CNBC, may have had a hand in the firm’s collapse.

My aim isn’t to choose between the two—they’re both fine—but to note that both treated the global credit panic as a given, as though it were the result of some kind of natural disaster or a particularly nasty turn in the business cycle.

I believe my former colleagues, in rushing into such high-concept fare, have underplayed a good story. Sure, we have an idea that bad practices occurred, along with bad judgment, but do we really know the sweep of it all? Since it’s just us business reporters here—just us spam—let me illustrate what I mean with a quiz. Match the allegation with the institution. Answers are at the end of the piece.


1. Handed out copies of the movie Boiler Room as a training tape

2. Partnered to sell its “PayOption Arms” with a brokerage owned by a five-time felon, whose convictions included gun-related charges

3. Forbade loan officers to check borrower income on certain loans

4. Ran an “art department” in its Tampa office, where documents were altered

5. Settled allegations of institutionalized marketing deception that covered two million customers

6. Developed “FastQual,” a program designed to approve borrowers in twelve seconds

7. Incentivized brokers and loan officers through “yield spread premiums” and other compensation schemes to put borrowers into more expensive loans

8. Tapped two kegs of beer at weekly staff meetings


A. Citigroup

B. Countrywide

C. Ameriquest

D. IndyMac

E. Merit Financial

F. New Century

G. All of the above

This is not a take-home exam. If you don’t get more than two of seven, I think we have work to do.

And then...

As extensive and penetrating as this story is, it just barely touches on the other critical piece of the big picture - how the same financial system players it discusses colluded with Republican Congresses over two administrations (in the lofty name of market-fundamentalist ideology and (as is visible now, illusory) economic growth) ) to win enabling-deregulation, and fox-over-henhouse-oversight, in their own business arenas.

That, I suppose, is another story...
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