What has become of business journalism?
Shaban writes, “Business reporters are supposed to make the complex worlds of finance and commerce intelligible to non-experts. But business journalism generally failed to predict the looming credit collapse, although a few reporters warned of its arrival. Critical stories by Michael Hudson, of the Roanoke Times and the Wall Street Journal, and Gillian Tett, of the Financial Times, drowned in a vat of glimmering C.E.O. profiles and analyst chatter. Business reporters missed opportunities to investigate abusive lending, negligent rating agencies, and dodgy derivatives trading. To critics, they were complicit in the financial crisis and the recession that followed.
One of these critics, Dean Starkman, is the author of a new book, ‘The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark.’ In his history of business news, Starkman describes how reporters, dependent on insider sources to inform an élite audience of investors, practice a kind of journalism that is defined by access. News becomes a guide to investing, more concerned with explaining business strategies to consumers than with examining broader political or social issues to the public. Access reporting is friendly to executives because it relies on their candor. Starkman writes that during the crucial lead-up to the financial crisis, from 2004 to 2006, this news culture crowded out the kind of investigative journalism that might have inspired reform. Andrew Ross Sorkin’s ‘Too Big to Fail,’ a book that paints culpable Wall Street kingpins as weary heroes, is, to Starkman, the definitive account of the crash—and wrongly so.
“Starkman tells his story partly by reaching back into the past. In 1904, Ida Tarbell penned ‘The History of the Standard Oil Company,’ a damning critique of the oil monopoly and its baron, John D. Rockefeller, and pioneered what Starkman calls ‘accountability journalism.’ But, even then, business journalism still functioned mainly as a messaging service between merchants and financiers. Starkman sketches the origins of the Wall Street Journal (founded in 1889) and Forbes (1917). In the early years of these publications, reporters who were cozy with board members were rewarded with scoops about acquisitions and other little-known developments.”
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