Business journalism’s image problem

By Chrystia Freeland
August 23, 2010

In this past weekend’s New York Times, Chrystia channels Mikael Blomkvist, the muckracking protagonist in Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, and argues that he would be horrified that the best writing on the financial crisis — Michael Lewis’ The Big Short and Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail — has come from insiders with access:

Lewis is “eternally grateful” to his subjects for their cooperation. Sorkin, a reporter and columnist for The New York Times, is “truly grateful” to his. One can imagine Blomkvist sputtering with rage, but you don’t have to be a fictional Scandinavian social democrat to wish that business journalism in the United States was more about afflicting the comfortable and less about cozying up to them. In the spring, the high priests of American journalism at the Columbia Journalism Review published a tough critique of Sorkin by Dean Starkman, who argued that “Too Big to Fail” was on one side — the wrong side — in the “mini-struggle” between “deal journalism and the work of accountability-oriented reporters.”

Chrystia goes on to say that the most worrisome divide is not between “access” and “investigative” business journalists, as Blomkvist would have us believe. Rather, in an interconnected, global economy, what differentiates the best reporters from the rest is the ability to make sense of data and complex systems:

We are drawn to stories about people, not systems. When it comes to the financial crisis, we want heroes and villains and what-he-had-for-breakfast narratives; we are less enthralled by analytical accounts of the global financial system and the cycle of boom and bust. Some critics juxtapose the approaches of “access” and “investigative” journalists. But the real divide may be between storytellers and system analysts.

We are living in the age of number-crunchers, not narrators. On Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in Bangalore and in Shanghai, the new technologies and the capital flows that are reshaping our world are dominated by the people who master data dumps. This split — more than geography, more than gender, more than what your parents did for a living — may be the real class divide of our time.

Read the entire piece here.

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Chrystia:
I want somebody of your stature to investigate and report – repeatedly – on two items:
1, the relationship between the finance arm of an industrial corporation and the corp’s reported profits themselves. For instance, the anointed Welch from GE at its height (you remember him: dump the frump, pick up with the adoring lit chick) – how much of his stock price success reflected the GE Financial investments in the phoney derivatives market, and therefore, how much of his reputation is based upon his retirement prior to the crash? There are other corporations, of course.
2.the retention by MSNBC and Fox financial of Bush cheerleaders who were horribly wrong before the crash and are now hostile to the eco regulation from Obama. Unchastened by their monumental misjudgment, they are back with unending, and superficial, bush-era bumper stickers, using their ideology and not basic economics as their touchstones. These are people who should have been fired: Mort Zuckerman (a Madoff dupe, of all things!), Joe Kiernan, and the absolute worst, Kudlow, who began his show in the oughts with a soviet-style paean to George Bush. Anybody on Fox Business would be appropriate.

It seems to me that though differences of opinion should exist for solutions, the basic facts should not be in doubt. Business analysis should be like medical research, where the facts trump, like it or not, any feelings about the facts. These folks that I mentioned like their ideology more than their own personal financial success, the success of any retirement plan, or indeed, the success of the US economy as a whole.

Please investigate for us all.
Frank

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