The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis
and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism
Been missing too long and while there are plenty of good reasons for that they’re also all excuses. So, no hairshirts. Let’s just get back to it.
Dean Stockman is a veteran journalist turned j-school professor. This work embodies all the contradictions contained in that last sentence.
A strong case can be made that some professions actually operate on a craft model. Simply put, that means you can’t be ‘taught’ how to do it, you just have to learn how by trial and error with the guidance of more experienced hands. It’s a guild-like model that still holds true for jobs like master cabinetmaker and, I’d argue journalist. (Or, for that matter, direct marketer.)
I say that because at the end of the day journalism is about storytelling and you have to learn how to tell a story. But professors must satisfy a different dictate: contributing to the growth of human knowledge. Quite often the result of trying to meet that requirement is just like this book–a story tortured into incorporating ‘data’ and theoretical digressions.
There is a story here and Starkman does a good job with it. The tale he tells is of the rise of investigative reporting, he calls it accountability reporting, and the role of that practice in a democracy. He recounts the history of 20th century American journalism starting with the groundbreaking work of McClure’s in the first decade of the 20th century and updating it through the start of the current millennium.
By way of contrast he also charts the growth of what he calls access journalism. This latter category is more narrowly focused and traces its roots back to business publications, including the original Wall Street Journal, that delivered action-oriented information to a niche audience. In Starkman’s telling, this is a path always flirting with compromise and devolution into what he terms ‘CNBCization.”
Starkman even ventures to suggest that the two approaches need not be incompatible. His hero is Bernard Kilgore, the legendary editor who in the post-WWII era turned the Journal into a national newspaper and made reporting of long-form, in-depth stories a staple. An alum of the paper that Kilgore built, Starkman obviously believes that abandoning that model is a great loss.
I’m sorry to say I don’t remember Starkman’s byline in the WSJ–he’s a fine writer and one worth remembering. Yet I think he’s too enamored of the past he was part of. I was a long-time, daily reader of the Journal and while it’s diminished it still stands above the competition.
Starkman only grudgingly admits that newspapers have always been businesses first. (Even the good guys in this tale pursued profitability.) While not minimizing the potential negative profit impact of holding business and public figures accountable he still believes there is a higher purpose that has been lost. Ironically, I think the theorists he flirts with provide a more fruitful way to think about whether there’s any truth in that idea.
In playing the professor, Starkman cites theory and assembles data. The data he presents are of questionable value. Drawn from limited sources, reduced, in the final analysis, to mere counting, they don’t demonstrate much. What they do is allow him to sprinkle charts around, applying a patina of science and objectivity. But that’s all it is, a hint.
Then there is theory. Much as I enjoyed seeing a journalist reference the work of Pierre Bourdieu, there’s no better example of being a prisoner of your past than the way Starkman portrays the work of this seminal thinker. Here’s Starkman: “Fields are spaces of conflict and competition as agents compete…each individual field is marked by polarities: opposing forces within the field that competes for primacy, one over the other.” (p. 141) There’s even a footnote (gotta keep up that patina). Unfortunately, it references not Bourdieu, but an anthology in which his work appears and a journal article applying his framework to journalism.
Just read the quote again. (And please, check the original. Ellipses very often serve to change meaning. I believe I’ve preserved the character of what Starkman says while shortening for length.) It reads like Herbert Spencer applying Darwin to Gilded Age capitalism; it could pass for a neo-classical explanation of market economies. Trouble is,that ain’t Bourdieu, at least as I learned him. Here’s a bit from In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology (1990):
“The analysis of objective structures–those of different fields–is inseparable from the analysis of the genesis, within biological individuals, of the mental structures which are to some extent the product of the incorporation of social structures; inseparable, too, from the analysis of the genesis of these social structures, and of the groups that occupy it, are the products of historical struggles…” (p. 14)
As I learned the master, Bourdieu’s is a dialectical approach,explaining dominance within social structures by way of the mental constructs (baggage, if you prefer the vernacular) we each bring to social interactions. If Dean Starkman has any baggage it’s probably filled with a big heap of romanticized journalism history and the sweet but misguided belief that corporate organizations are somehow owned by the employees rather than the owners.
And what of the financial crisis? Did mainstream business journalists fail? Did media owners fail? Why wasn’t someone, anyone held accountable? There are lots of possible explanations, all more involved than saying there isn’t enough accountability journalism.