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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Weekend Reader: ‘The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis And The Disappearance Of Investigative Journalism’

Weekend Reader: ‘The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis And The Disappearance Of Investigative Journalism’

Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism by Dean Starkman, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and fellow at The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Starkman argues that the institutionalization of muckraking from the 1960s and the investigative culture of journalism have worn off. This has led to silence and unreported stories of corruption, as made evident in the years that preceded the 2008 financial crisis. 

You can purchase the book here.

The U.S. business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.

And that’s the news about the news.

The watchdog didn’t bark. What happened? How could an entire journalism subculture, understood to be sophisticated and plugged in, miss the central story occurring on its beat? And why was it that some journalists, mostly outside the mainstream, were able to produce work that in fact did reflect the radical changes overtaking the financials system while the vast majority in the mainstream did not?

This book is about journalism watchdogs and what happens when they don’t bark. What happens is the public is left in the dark about and powerless against complex problems that overtake important national institutions. In this case, the complex problem was the corruption of the U.S. financial system. The book is intended for the lay reader—not journalists, not finance aficionadosbut those whom the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “literate citizen[s].” That would be anyone who wonders why an entirely manmade event like the financial crisis could take the whole world by surprise.

Few need reminders, even today, of the costs of the crisis: 10 million Americans uprooted by foreclosure with even more still threatened, 23 million unemployed or underemployed, whole communities set back a generation, shocking bailouts for the perpetrators, political polarization here and instability abroad. And so on and so forth.

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Was the brewing crisis really such a secret? Was it all so complex as to be beyond the capacity of conventional journalism and, through it, the public to understand? Was it all so hidden? In fact, the answer to all those questions is “no.” The problem—distorted incentives corrupting the financial industry—was plain, but not to Wall Street executives, traders, rating agencies, analysts, quants, or other financial insiders. It was plain to the outsiders: state regulators, plaintiffs’ lawyers, community groups, defrauded mortgage borrowers, and, mostly, to former employees of financial institutions, the whistleblowers, who were, in fact, blowing the whistle. A few reporters actually talked to them, understood the metastasizing problem, and wrote about it. You’ll meet a couple of them in this book. Unfortunately, they didn’t work for the mainstream business press.

In the aftermath of the Lehman bankruptcy of September 2008, a great fight broke out over the causes of the crisis—a fight that’s more or less resolved at this point. While of course it’s complicated, Wall Street and the mortgage lenders stand front and center in the dock. Meanwhile, a smaller fight broke out over the business press’s role. After all, its central beat—the one over which it claims particular mastery—is the same one that suddenly melted down, to the shock of one and all. For business reporters, the crisis was more than a surprise. There was even something uncanny about it. A generation of professionals had, in effect, grown up with this set of Wall Street firms and had put them on the covers of Fortune and Forbes, the front page of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and the rest, scores of times. The firms were so familiar, the press had even given them anthropomorphized personalities over the years: Morgan Stanley, the “white-shoe” WASP firm; Merrill Lynch, the scrappy Irish Catholic firm, often considered the dumb one; Goldman, the elite Jewish firm; Lehman, the scrappy Jewish firm; Bear Stearns, the naughty one, and so on. Love them or hate them, there they were, blessed by accounting firms, rating agencies, and regulators, gleaming towers of power. Until one day, they weren’t.

Critics contended, understandably, that the business press must have been asleep at the wheel. In a March 2009 interview that would go viral, the comedian Jon Stewart confronted the CNBC personality Jim Cramer with the problem. Stewart said, in effect, that business journalism presents itself as providing wall-to-wall, 24/7 coverage of Wall Street but had somehow managed to miss the most important thing ever to happen on that beat—the Big One. “It is a game that you know is going on, but you go on television as a financial network and pretend it isn’t happening,” is how Stewart framed it. And many understood exactly what he meant.

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  • Gadsden Purchase

    To preserve freedom, we must understand that democratic processes cannot alone guarantee the security of life, liberty, and property.

    • OakenTruncheon


  • charles king

    That whole ERA was a mind opener for me cause I had no idea of What? went on doing the period of (1979-2006) I bought a house in a white neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania then over night the space became black area but I held on to the property until (2006) When? A black fellow down the street Asked ” Do you wnt to sell ” How much is it worth to you, was my reply. He ,quoted a figure and I throught, was I ready to move then I heard another selling price Which? was higher than the other. Hum-um I said to myself,What? the hell is going on in Black America cause where I was living for over twenty years was completely Black America. I consider myself a fairly wise guy with some education and ex-school-teacher in a segregated school system in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I check into the situation some more and Lo! and Behold! I found a little profit and I sold, and I wrote a book “Thank You Jesus for Johnstown, Pennsylvania” and here I am back home in Johnstown, Pennsylvania Where? I feel another crisis arising in the school system of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Hum_um. Thank You are the magic words in my book. I Love Ya All. Mr. C. E. KING

  • Angel Perea

    THE INCONVENIENT TRUTH: Remember when the Free Press a higher guiding principle was? I find it remarkable that the national press accepts or fails to report what politicians are saying or doing behind the scenes! The Press seems to be more concerned with being politically correct then being be accurately correct regardless of whether they insult the intelligence of voting Americans seeking the factual truth! David Starkman book, The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism states that “This has led to silence and unreported stories of corruption, as made evident in the years that preceded the 2008 financial crisis!” And this continues in Washington DC and States legislating new Voter laws to address voter fraud where NO cases of fraud exists but creating voter suppression! : It seems that Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success may apply to current status of (lack of) Character quality in too many of today’s “Taker” politicians. In Grant’s words: “Whereas takers strive to get as much as possible from others, and matchers aim to trade evenly, givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return.” The old guiding principle of a “sense of service to others for the public good has been lost!

    • OakenTruncheon

      The term, “kleptocracy” continues to gain currency.

  • OakenTruncheon

    There have always been some who have held that the very nature of our finance system is inherently corrupt, and corrupting.

  • JohnnyE1000

    >Then, for reasons I will attempt to explain, it lapsed into useful but not sufficient consumer- and investor-oriented stories during the critical years of 2004 through 2006.<

    That was about the time the Outsourcing frenzy started. Workers were warning about that but nobody seemed to care, especially politicians or reporters. Our unemployment problem would be gone if we still had those workers. We basically gave away major industries like software and got nothing in return. The economic multiplier effect is zero when the jobs are shipped offshore.