I briefly discussed the study by the Columbia Journalism Review about the responsibility of the media in the (non-)coverage of the early signs of the financial crisis and I wanted to revisit this here a bit.
The CJR article is an indictment of the business media, which it says did not do its job of bringing up the recklessness, irresponsibility and sheer fraud that characterised the housing and banking boom of the past decade. The CJR acknowledges that there were a number of articles in various publications (in particular the Financial Times) pointing to problems, but none that really brought about a change in behavior. They contrast this with some isolated cases where well-researched articles (usually about local scandals) led to actual investigations and punishment of financial firms, and note that enforcement of rules by public authorities is intimately linked to critical coverage of the issues by an investigative media corps.
And yet... the information was there, for who wanted to see it. Most of my blogging since 2004 has been based on information published in the business press. The crash was announced in many different ways in the FT, the WSJ, the Economist or the NYT, and regular readers of these publications cannot have been surprised by what unfolded. The facts were there, and a good deal of the smart analysis of these facts was there as well.
Of course, what was missing is not the information, but appropriate focus on such information - meaning that casual readers (a category that includes pundits and headline writers) did not get it very easily, or at all, or only as an occasional note of warning to what was largely upbeat - cheerleading, one might uncharitably say - coverage of the financial world.
What happened is that these critical bits of news did not trickle down... They were not picked up by headline writers, they were not picked up by the pundits (the Serious People) that create and repeat conventional wisdom ad nauseam, and they certainly did not appear in the less detailed coverage of finance which is provided by TV news, local papers and daily conversations, which filters what is said by the headlines of the business papers and the background context which permeates Serious People's articles.
Sometimes a single article can see its content immediately spread like wildfire and become common knowledge (think of Ron Suskind's article about the "reality-based community"), but that's not quite enough. Piketty and Saez's articles on widening income inequality are amongst the most quoted, but somehow inequality, while acknowledged, has still not become a topic worth discussing in public debate
In other words, the inconvenient facts did not join the mainstream - the basic stuff that most people that don't really pay attention do know (things like "stock market up = good news = the economy is doing well," "Europe = socialism = stagnant losers," "people making millions = successful = role models" and so forth). There's several layers of blame here:- journalists not writing enough about these facts, or burying them deep in articles; - editors and headline writers consistently focusing on other facts to put forward (either for corporate reasons; - pundits and other Serious People that do not incorporate these facts in the worldview that they use as background for everything they write (and that background, given that it's not the topic of the day, acquires more reality by being taken for granted); - readers who don't know better and swallow uncritically what's been reprocessed by pundits, press agencies and TV airheads.
A typical exemple was the run-up to the attack of Iraq, where critical facts were printed at the bottom of lenghty articles and otherwise ignored; and as the CJR article makes clear, coverage of finance in 2004-2007 was similarly biased and partial on the surface.
Blogs have done a good job of digging up those inconvenient facts and give them a bit more of the prominence they deserve; that the traditional media sees that as a threat is a recognition both of the indictment that they failed to do the job of analysing facts, and of the increasing likelihood that they are losing their privileged role as gatekeepers of the Common Wisdom.
But they while they point ot the failings of the media, they also point out that the solution, as buhdydharma never tires of telling us, can only happen because citizens are involved - informed enough, able to call on bullshit, and willing to stand up to do so.
And they also point the fact that the information was there in the first place thanks to the work of journalists - they are still indispensable, when they do their job. And the only way to make them do their job properly is to support them when they do, by actually reading them (and ignoring the talking heads that translate and distort the reality they report), and by concentrating our fire on the intermediate layers: the editors, headline writers, op-ed writers that choose which facts and which interpretation to focus on.
But we need the facts to be able to fight these. And while blog reporters are doing an increasingly important job, we'll still have to rely on journalists and newspapers to a large extent to get these. Let's not forget it.