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Is the Press Too Big to Fail, or Has It Been Failing for Decades?

There was no Golden Age for the media, but the industry's failure on climate change is its worst offense yet.

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 1:27 PM EDT

On March 23, 2008, as the bubble was finally bursting, Times reporters Nelson Schwartz and Julie Creswell noted that "during the late 1990s, Wall Street fought bitterly against any attempt to regulate the emerging derivatives market." They went on:

"A milestone in the deregulation effort came in the fall of 2000, when a lame-duck session of Congress passed a little-noticed piece of legislation called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. The bill effectively kept much of the market for derivatives and other exotic instruments off-limits to agencies that regulate more conventional assets like stocks, bonds and futures contracts."

"Little-noticed" indeed. According to Lexis-Nexis, not a single substantive mention of this law appeared in the Times that year. On October 1, 2000, Washington Post writer Jerry Knight did note ruefully, "What's fascinating about the policy debate is the agreement on the guiding principle: The government should not stand in the way of financial innovation."

In a syndicated column on Christmas Eve, way-out-of-the-mainstream columnist Molly Ivins was not so poker-faced. She called the new law "a little horror." And in that she stood alone. That was it outside of financial journals like the American Banker and HedgeWorld Daily News, which, of course, were thrilled by the act. That magic word "modernization" in its title evidently froze the collective journalistic brain.

Or in those years consider how the New York Times covered the exotic derivatives called "collateralized debt obligations," among the principal cards of which the era's entire international financial house was built. These tricky arcana, marketed as little miracles of risk management, multiplied from an estimated $20 billion in 2004 to more than $180 billion by 2007. The Times's Floyd Norris drily mentioned them in a 2001 front-page business section article about American Express headlined "They Sold the Derivative, but They Didn't Understand It." He quoted the CEO of Wells Fargo Bank this way: "There are all kinds of transactions going on out there where one party doesn't understand it." From then on, no substantial Times front-page business section article so much as mentioned collateralized debt obligations for almost four years.

In 2009, in an enlightening article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Dean Starkman, a former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal, looked at the nine most influential business press outlets from January 1, 2000, through June 30, 2007—that is, for the entire period of the housing bubble. A total of 730 articles contained what Starkman judged to be significant warnings that the bubble could burst. That's 730 out of more than one million articles these journals published.

The formula was simple and straightforward: the business press served the market movers and shakers. It was a reputation-making machine, a publicity apparatus for the industry. In other words, the job of financial reporters in those years was to remain fast asleep as the most flagrantly abusive part of the mortgage industry, subprime mortgages, was integrated into routine banking.

Meanwhile, thanks to that same financial press, a culture of celebrity enveloped the big names of finance: CEOs of major banks, Wall Street investors, operators of hedge funds. They were repeatedly portrayed not just as fabulously successful tycoons doing their best for the society, but as fabulously giving philanthropists, their names engraved into the walls of university buildings, museums, symphony halls, and opera houses. They weren't just bringers of liquidity to markets, but wise men, too. In an all-enveloping media atmosphere in which the press indulged without a blink, they were held to be not only creators of wealth but moral exemplars. Indeed, the two were essentially interchangeable: they were moral exemplars because they were creators of wealth.

The Desertification of the News

Oh, and in case you think that the coverage from hell of the events leading up to the financial meltdown was uniquely poor, think again. On an even greater meltdown that lies ahead, the press is barely, finally, still haphazardly coming around to addressing convulsive climate change with the seriousness it deserves. At least it is now an intermittent story, though rarely linked to endemic drought and starvation. Still, as Wen Stephenson, formerly editor of the Boston Globe's "Ideas" section and TheAtlantic.com and senior producer of National Public Radio's "On Point," summed up the situation in a striking online piece in the alternative Boston Phoenix: the subject is seldom treated as urgent and is frequently covered as a topic for special interests, a "problem," not an "existential threat." (Another note on vanishing news: Since publishing Stephenson's article, the Phoenix has ceased to exist.)

Even now, when it comes to climate change, our gasping journalism does not "flood the zone." It also has a remarkable record of bending over backward to prove its "objectivity" by turning piece after piece into a debate between a vast majority of scientists knowledgeable on the subject and a fringe of climate-change deniers and doubters.

When it came to our financial titans, in all those years the press rarely felt the need for a dissenting voice. Now, on the great subject of our moment, the press repeatedly clutches for the rituals of detachment. Two British scholars studying climate coverage surveyed 636 articles from four top United States newspapers between 1988 and 2002 and found that most of them gave as much attention to the tiny group of climate-change doubters as to the consensus of scientists.

And if the press has, until very recently, largely failed us on the subject, the TV news is a disgrace. Despite the record temperatures of 2012, the intensifying storms, droughts, wildfires and other wild weather events, the disappearing Arctic ice cap, and the greatest meltdown of the Greenland ice shield in recorded history, their news divisions went dumb and mute. The Sunday talk shows, which supposedly offer long chews and not just sound bites—those high-minded talking-head episodes that set a lot of the agenda in Washington and for the attuned public—were otherwise occupied.

All last year, according to the liberal research group Media Matters,

"The Sunday shows spent less than 8 minutes on climate change... ABC's This Week covered it the most, at just over 5 minutes… NBC's Meet the Press covered it the least, in just one 6 second mention… Most of the politicians quoted were Republican presidential candidates, including Rick Santorum, who went unchallenged when he called global warming ‘junk science' on ABC's This Week. More than half of climate mentions on the Sunday shows were Republicans criticizing those who support efforts to address climate change… In four years, Sunday shows have not quoted a single scientist on climate change."

The mounting financial troubles of journalism only tighten the muzzle on a somnolent watchdog. It's unlikely that serious business coverage will be beefed up by media companies counting their pennies on their way down the slippery circulation slope. Why invest in scrutiny of government regulators when the cost is lower for celebrity-spotting and the circulation benefits so much greater? Meanwhile, the nation's best daily environmental coverage takes a big hit. In January, the New York Times's management decided to close down its environmental desk, scratching two environmental editor positions and reassigning five reporters. How could such a move not discourage young journalists from aiming to make careers on the environmental beat?

The rolling default in climate-change coverage cries out for the most serious professional self-scrutiny. Will it do for journalists and editors to remain thoroughly tangled up in their own remarkably unquestioned assumptions about what constitutes news? It's long past time to reconsider some journalistic conventions: that to be newsworthy, events must be singular and dramatic (melting glaciers are held to be boring), must feature newsworthy figures (Al Gore is old news), and must be treated with balance (as in: some say the earth is spherical, others say it's flat).

But don't let anyone off the hook. Norms can be bent. Consider this apt headline on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek after Hurricane Sandy drowned large sections of New York City and the surrounding area: "It's Global Warming, Stupid." Come on, people: Can you really find no way to dramatize the extinction of species, the spread of starvation, the accelerating droughts, desertification, floods, and violent storms? With all the dots you already report, even with shrunken staffs, can you really find no way to connect them?

If it is held unfair, or naïve, or both, to ask faltering news organizations to take up the slack left by our corrupt, self-dealing, shortsighted institutions, then it remains for start-up efforts to embarrass the established journals.

Online efforts matter. It's a good sign that the dot-connecting site InsideClimateNews.org was just honored with a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

But tens of millions of readers still rely on the old media, either directly or via the snippets that stream through Google, Yahoo, and other aggregator sites. Given the stakes, we dare not settle for nostalgia or restoration, or pray that the remedy is new technology. Polishing up the old medals will not avail. Reruns of His Girl Friday, All the President's Men, and Broadcast News may be entertaining, but it's more important to keep in mind that the good old days were not so good after all. The press was never too great to fail. Missing the story is a tradition. So now the question is: Who is going to bring us the news of all the institutions, from City Hall to Congress, from Wall Street to the White House, that fail us?

Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism and communications at Columbia University, is the author of The Whole World Is Watching, Media Unlimited, and many other books including, most recently, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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