Let sleeping dogs WAKE UP!

tn_sleeping-dogs.jpg In an article in Columbia Journalism Review, titled “Prime and Subprime,” freelance writer Dean Starkman asks: where was the financial press when the subprime mortgage scandal was brewing?

Answer, it was in exactly the same place where it stood before the dot.com collapse. In the late 1990s I worked as a business reporter for a major metro just a hop, skip and a jump north of Silicon Valley. During that period the entire media – financial and mainstream press – doffed its watchdog cap and donned its cheerleading outfit. Remember the New Economy, stupid?  I have one former colleague from that era who has never quite forgiven me for chiding him for writing the “Will the NASDAQ hit 6,000”  story just before the bubble burst.

Of course he’s right to be upset at me because it is the editors who order up such foolishness. Reporters — unless they are exceptionally dull and unusually lazy — perceive the signs of excess so obvious to even the most cursory fact-gathering. This knowledge makes reporters nervous but it doesn’t give them courage to buck the herd instinct that is so powerful and comforting in an uncertain world.

As a not-shy person who has been inside mass media since 1992 I’ve discovered there is no way to stand against the power of a “story” – say the launch of the iPod — that somehow insinuates itself into the editorial consciousness with hurricane force. You simply put up big sheets of plywood over the windows of what had been your independent judgment, write the stupid story and hope that your readers — the ones whose lips do not move when they read, and who occasionally look up to notice who had written what — either ignore the piece or forgive you in advance.

Starkman focuses his CJR piece on the subprime scandal, and his message is that the New York Times and Business Week did the best job in pre-saging the crisis, praising Biz Weeker Mara Der Hovanesian, for instance, for 2006 stories getting into the tricky tactics of subprime lenders.

For the most part, however, the financial and mainstream press have both reacted to the subprime crisis as if it was like a meteor that had suddenly materialized just outside the ionosphere and now threatened to flatten the international monetary system. And I’m like — dudes, do ever you look into the telescope?

And that is the uber failure with mass media today. It is reactive, nor proactive. It will decisively lock the barn door after the horse has been let out, and will probably crusade for criminal charges against whatever poor schlub happens to be the fall guy. It is the failure of editorial judgment on a national scale which is revealed yet again by the subprime scandal, if in fact more proof were needed than the war into which the finest newspapers in America led the nation based on lies told to them by “sources speaking under condition of anonymity.”

The world moves toward the future at an acccelerating rate, driven by technological and financial systems whose outlines we only grasp as journalists after they fail. If America were a car, and newspaper editors were its back-seat drivers, they would indeed be facing backwards, staring into the past and providing little or no direction  about the road ahead. And we wonder why circulations are dropping?