All Talk, No Action

Journalism Since the Great Financial Crisis

In early 2009 I attended a memorable panel discussion at Columbia University’s Journalism School in New York. A handful of elite journalists who were trained in finance, statistics and data came to talk to about fifty of us students. The main questions were: What could journalists have done better in reporting on the financial sector before the crash? Why hadn’t we, the best reporters in the world who were writing the first draft of history, seen the crash coming?

These questions were thoroughly answered but courageous action was never taken. A course correction never happened. The Great Financial Crisis may have been the last chance to stand up for what’s right: for journalists to be writing for the reader, and the reader only, the hard-working man or woman who simply wants to know what happened in the world while they were busy doing their jobs. It’s a main reason why the public’s trust in the media today is at an all-time low.

Some of my Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism notes

The first of four main lessons I learned at that panel discussion was that journalists had been too meek: we had not asked the tough questions to the extremely powerful bank managers. We had not been courageous enough, and as a result ‘banksters’ had gotten away easily.

Secondly, we had not taken the time to learn about the rapidly increasing and morally dubious complexity of the financial sector. Journalists had not understood the meaning of Credit Default Swaps, Mortgage Backed Securities, Tranches and so forth.

Thirdly, we had become too easily convinced that major rating agencies such as Moody’s and S&P were trustworthy, doing their jobs properly and informing the public correctly. We had been too lazy to double check.

Finally, journalists were simply far too alpha trained instead of bèta: we were not well-versed enough in reading raw data to be able to properly report on statistics and finance: we needed to learn that statistics can be easily portrayed in the media in many possible perspectives, including deceptive ways.

All these valuable lessons went straight to my heart, and they have stayed there ever since. I interned in the office building where Lehman Brothers had been only a few months prior, and a few years after that I became responsible for the production of the Dutch book translation of Michael Lewis’ bestseller ‘The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine’. I kept on following the developments in finance closely ever since that panel discussion. It worried me to see no improvements in the financial sector, but it worried me more to see little to no improvements in journalism.

Another major development coincided with the demise of quality reporting. Google and Facebook took almost full control of the online global content creation industry around 2014, which includes news reporting. This article from Harvard Business Review from January 2015 describes this trend well. The Big Tech companies were able to grow fast through allowing everyone to use their product for free and by allowing all content, in other words, by being a platform. After that milestone was reached, they deceptively and perversely transformed into all-powerful omnipresent publishers. It was the nail in journalism’s coffin: its business model was dead and its soul was now sold.

Meanwhile, a lot of dirt kept coming out about the structural and existentially destructive corruption within the financial sector. Heroes like Carmen Segarra revealed this. Some important links you’ll find in that article don’t work anymore. The information is out there but it’s being censored, removed, memory-holed and there is little to no journalistic counter force. Our fate is in the hands of corrupt billionaires until the media reinvents itself and decentralizes. The financial sector has never been cleaned up, on the contrary, it gets bailed out until it crashes again, but the perfect storm is caused by journalism never stepping up, shortly after I graduated it crumbled to dust.