Starkman’s List: Analyst counts the ways business-journalism fails

The Columbia Journalism Review posted “The List” this week, a catalog of 727 stories published in the top business press outlets during the run-up to the financial crisis. “Power Problem,” an analysis of The List by CJR Editor Dean Starkman, is due to post next week.

In compiling The List, the CJR staff looked to determine if in fact business writers had provided adequate warning to the public before the bad-loan business toppled global finance. They searched stories from 2000 to 2007.

The answer: Sorry, no. The top business writers in the country failed to adequately survey the field and see the looming disaster.

Consider how damning that is in light of the fact that the business and finance press is basically a mere corner in the larger media landscape. This survey says the top business writers failed, but it says nothing about endless 24/7 rah-rah cheerleading cable TV coverage. It says nothing about the tiny percentage of serious finance warning stories that made it onto the front page of newspapers or magazine covers or the network and local TV news.

If we consider the question in terms of the news agenda set by the nation’s editors as a whole, it’s difficult not to conclude that the promotion of crap business news stories in the place of accurate and therefore bad-news stories along with the ghettoization of hard business news as a category, amounts to full-on culpability on the part of the news industry — through negligence if nothing else.

But there is so much else.

There is the long well-known catalog of problems. As everyone knows and as Jon Stewart will remind us for as long as he cares to keep doing so, business and finance writers are sure as hell not alone in always trusting official sources and so-called experts and bowing and scraping to bad market ideology.

Starkman, the CJR editor behind The List, who is putting the final touches on his much-anticipated “6,400-word” analysis, need not bother finishing it. There is no way he can do any better than Edward Ericson Jr. — no doubt the Baltimore City Paper writer — who left the third of only three comments so far in response to The List. He says it all in three short graphs and here they are:

Impressive job, Dean, but I don’t know about the premise. The place for big warnings way out ahead of the crash–1995 or 2002, say–was on the front page of the major dailies, and on the teevee. Anywhere else, it doesn’t matter. Proof that the biz press did not do enough to warn us is built into the fact that the L.A. Times, WaPo, NYT and even the WSJ did not, ever, publish a story saying “holy mother of fuck, there’s $30 trillion (or $60 trillion, or $400 trillion) in notional assets floating the over-the-counter derivatives market! One false move and the taxpayer is toast!” That story could have been written in 1997. It could have been written in 1994. It sure should have been written in 1998 after the LTCM fiasco. It was not.

The story did not get written because of the way main stream journalistic institutions–the only institutions that could have made a difference–see their mission. They are not predictive. They do not go out on a limb. They do not look at things systemically. They do not test the statements of Important and Powerful People against the most basic tenets of logic. They trust the experts. They call no one a liar.

And so we have . . . this. And so we have Iraq all to ourselves. And so we have a health care reform debate that forecloses the possibility of a single-payer system. And so we have myriad other impossible situations, absurd conditions, all considered “normal.”

Journalism, you’re killing us. Evolve or die!

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