What Gretchen Morgenson is good for
New York Times business columnist Gretchen Morgenson is Terry Gross’s guest on Fresh Air today. I caught about ten minutes of the conversation while out driving this afternoon, and it reminded me of why I’m not a big fan of Gretchen Morgenson’s work. She’s just not very interesting to listen to, or read: Too flat, too broad-brush, too predictable, lacking in cleverness and nuance and curiosity. That’s why I’d take a Joe Nocera column (or a Felix Salmon blog post) any day over a Morgenson offering.
But then talk on Fresh Air turned to the ongoing brouhaha over foreclosures of homes where it’s not clear that the foreclosing bank can actually prove that it owns the mortgage. Morgenson pointed out that this is a problem she’s been writing about since 2007. Has she been writing about it well? Not necessarily. Morgenson’s columns and articles on this and other topics have been a favorite Felix target through the years. And remember how Tanta, Calculated Risk’s late, lamented mortgage-banker co-blogger, used to get absolutely apoplectic over Morgenson’s real-estate-related work. The anger comes about because Morgenson so often gets basic facts wrong, seemingly misunderstands the businesses she covers, offers assertions that she fails to back up with evidence—that kind of stuff.
Which makes it only more aggravating when she so often eventually turns out to have been far closer to right than her critics were. For example, Morgenson claimed in March 2007 that the mortgage market was headed for a big crisis. What a wild assertion! As one Felix Salmon wrote immediately afterward: “Morgenson adduces no evidence whatsoever that any crisis is looming at all.” (I figure it’s okay to pick on Felix for this because I came very close to writing exactly the same thing at the time but was just too lazy to actually do it.)
If this had just happened once, okay. But Morgenson was also among the first and most persistent on the case of the Wall Street scandals of the early 2000s. She also really spotlighted aspects of the financial crisis of the past few years that the rest of the media only got around to months later. Forget Nouriel Roubini or Bob Shiller; Gretchen Morgenson may be the most reliable early warning device around.
How does she accomplish this? I think it’s partly that the same bullheadedness and simplistic approach that drives readers like me and Felix crazy actually enables Morgenson to zero in on targets that those more interested in nuance totally miss. It’s also that Morgenson suffuses her work with a sort of high moral dudgeon—and disgust for the evil ways of Wall Street—that more “sophisticated” journalists won’t allow themselves. The results speak for themselves: Sometimes battering rams work better than X-Acto knives. And I say that as someone who vastly prefers X-Acto knives (stylistically speaking).