The story of the century—the 21st, that is—is the ongoing financial crisis that has threatened to bring the developed world to its knees. Why business writers didn’t see it coming is the big question this collection of essays seeks to answer.
The collapse that led to the Great Recession came, writes Schiffrin (School of International and Public Affairs/Columbia Univ.), at a perfect-storm time for journalism, when collapsing advertising revenues and “the ensuing layoffs and staff cuts . . . made journalists fear for their jobs and perhaps more afraid to stand out from the rest of the pack.” And that was for the journalists who still had jobs, since some 30,000 nationwide had been eliminated, along with entire newspapers and magazines. Despite the generalized sense of guilt and shame about the failure to warn readers about the catastrophe, there was largely nothing to be done about it, since the business media had also become “embedded” inside Wall Street in the same way that war correspondents are embedded inside combat units. In these positions, the journalists were loath to report the unpleasant truths—if they were capable of doing so at all, given that few business reporters have the requisite understanding of economics to give a big-picture view of events by taking inches-thick reports home and reading between the lines to discern such startling revelations as, according to Washington Post writer Dan Froomkin, “the middle class may never be the same again” and “the hugely irresponsible financial sector remains unchastened.” Some contributors note external reasons for the failure of the business press, not least the obfuscations and outright lies of Wall Street. In all events, as New York Times writer Peter Goodman writes, it was hard to do deep interpretation and forecasting when “we had our hands full simply trying to make sense of the crush of events unfolding day after day.” Other contributors include Joseph Stiglitz and Barry Sussman.
A sort of All the President’s Men for our time, and just the thing to lure bright young people into economics graduate programs and journalism school—if only there were jobs waiting on the other end.