Marketplace Scratch Pad

Financial journalism debated

Scott Jagow Apr 2, 2009

I’m not on the radio much these days, but I did get some air time this morning on my old NPR station, WFAE in Charlotte, NC. I was a guest on Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins for a show about financial media. Did the media whiff on the implosion of subprime and Wall Street?

You can listen to the show here. The other guests were Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR’s On the Media and Patrick Scott, a business editor with the Charlotte Observer.

A brief summary of what was said: We agreed there were stories that foretold the possibility of a meltdown in the high-interest loan market, in the derivatives market, etc – but in total, the media got caught up in the “good times,” just like most people. Garfield put it this way:

“The media, as a whole, did very, very well. The media, as a whole, did very, very poorly. And both of those statements are true… If you chose to look at only (the stories mentioned above) you would say this is phenomenal. The press did an incredible job in its capacity as watchdog. But journalism is ephemeral and the story breaks on Tuesday or in the monthly Fortune or whatever. It points to where the problems are and the next day or the next month, the topic is something else.”

The press could’ve done a better job of crusading on the trouble below the surface, instead of mostly swimming in the good times of private equity and hedge funds and the Dow at 14,000.

Part of the problem is the black-and-white approach to the economy. “We all get caught up in the underlying notion that up is good and down is bad,” as Garfield says.

Marketplace is guilty of this. When stocks are up, “We’re in the Money.” When stocks are down, it’s “Stormy Weather.”

While this contributes to the good/bad thinking, it’s also one of the reasons people listen to the show. Listeners think the same way – up is good, down is bad. And they want things simplified, characterized and explained. Mostly, that’s a valuable service. Sometimes, all over the media, things are too simplified.

It’s harder and less attractive to report in shades of gray. Recessions are healthy. We need them. What we don’t need are boom times that are too “boomy.” That is, unless you’re prepared to weather the nasty storm that always follows.

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