Former business reporter turned academic Chris Roush argues the U.S. business media did try to get the public's attention about building problems in the financial system. But no one listened.
The problem isn't that the business media were dazzled by soaring real-estate prices and Wall Street profits and failed to see rot beneath the surface. Rather, it was that government regulators and the general public weren't paying attention.
And the warning signs were plentiful:
As far back as 1994, Fortune magazine's Carol Loomis predicted that derivatives could be “a villain, or even the villain, in some financial crisis that sweeps the world.” The complicated investments she mentioned are those we've seen unravel this year.
The Wall Street Journal's aggressive coverage of government-based lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac dates back nearly a decade. In 2004, one piece in the Journal compared Fannie Mae to Enron and WorldCom, two companies that crashed and burned the last time business journalists were blamed for an economic downturn.
Back in 2007, under the headline “Mortgages May Be Messier Than You Think,” Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times wrote, “As is often the case, only after fiery markets burn out do we see the risks that buyers ignore and sellers play down.” Her colleagues Diana Henriques and Floyd Norris exposed shady lending to military personnel and shaky accounting practices, respectively, in the past five years.
Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein has been warning of financial trouble for years. On August 1, 2007, in a column titled “Credit Markets' Weight Puts Economy on Shaky Ground,” Pearlstein wrote, “This financial engineering has encouraged debt to be piled on debt, making the system more susceptible to a meltdown if credit suddenly becomes more expensive or unavailable.”
Investigative business journalist Gary Weiss, who now writes for Portfolio, exposed nefarious behavior on Wall Street in his 2007 book, “Wall Street Versus America: A Muckraking Look at the Thieves, Fakers and Charlatans Who Are Ripping You Off.” The title pretty much sums it up.
Although business news coverage often struggles to explain the complexities of the field to average citizens, writers such as Morgenson and Pearlstein avoid the jargon found elsewhere. They made it clear that serious trouble was brewing in the economy and on Wall Street.
Here's the issue that financial journalism faces: No one likes a nattering nabob of negativism, especially when the stock market is climbing and all of our 401(k) plans are tied to it. So we shut out what we don't want to hear because it conflicts with what we'd like to happen.