A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist summarizes and analyzes the reasons the press, prior to the 2008 mortgage crisis, failed to pursue some obvious villains.
Starkman—an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review and a veteran newspaperman (Wall Street Journal, among others)—has both historical and analytical items on his agenda. He begins with Ida Tarbell, who wrote massive investigative pieces about Standard Oil for McClure’s at the turn of the 20th century, then sketches the history of the muckraking tradition, which has ebbed and flowed over the past century. He also offers some history of financial journalism, including the history of the WSJ, Barron’s, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes and others. Among the sundry heroes who emerge is Michael Hudson, a journalist who has focused on poverty issues since the early 1990s and whose name, efforts and accomplishments appear continually throughout the final two-thirds of Starkman’s text. Throughout, as well, the author returns to the distinction between “access” and “accountability” reporting—between stories that basically profile business leaders and present their views and investigative stories designed to bring into the light information that some (many? most?) in the business community would prefer to keep hidden. These two approaches, he shows, have waxed and waned over the years; unfortunately, they were on the wane in the years leading up to 2008. Starkman is careful, though, to credit individuals and publications that did see the looming problem, but, he writes, these stories were neither prominent nor pervasive enough to have a salutary effect. He notes the numerous causes of the problem—the rise of the Internet (and decline of newspapers), the barriers facing investigative journalists and the complexity of economic issues—though he can be obscure when he tries to explain derivatives and mortgage-backed securities.
As fair and balanced as a solar-plexus punch can be.