You’d think that the Wall Street Journal would own the biggest story of the past year, the meltdown of capitalism-as-we’ve-known-it. But the paper’s coverage has lagged. It did good work on the collapse of Bear Stearns a year ago, but for the most part it has done a mediocre job of explaining all that has gone wrong with our economic system. It has been left to the marquee names at the paper’s biggest competitor, the New York Times, to help us begin to understand where we are and how we got here: writers like Joe Nocera, Gretchen Morgenson, David Leonhardt, Floyd Norris, and of course Paul Krugman. Their pieces — like, for instance, Nocera’s explanation of where those billions we’re shoveling at AIG are really going — have regularly been essential reading, whereas the Journal’s coverage just hasn’t risen to that level too often.
One can think of several possible explanations for this failure. For one thing, the Wall Street collapse represents not only a story on the Journal’s home turf but also the disintegration of its motivating vision. The paper that champions “free people and free markets” is, I think, having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that free markets have just failed free people in a very big way. It has also, I imagine, been hard for the Journal’s troops to concentrate as they undergo a wrenching change of ownership and begin to adjust to new marching orders from the Murdoch regime.
Still, it seems very wrong-headed that, at the precise moment the Journal ought to be (pardon the usage) capitalizing on its strength in in-depth financial coverage, it is instead distracting itself with an effort to become a sort of upscale USA Today (with utterly superfluous features like a new sports section).
In Mother Jones, former Journal reporter Dean Starkman asks “How Could 9,000 Business Reporters Blow It?” One suggestion is that the Journal’s tradition of attending to the colorful titans of the business world became a liability in covering an impersonal credit crisis:
Jesse Eisinger, a former financial columnist for the Journal and now a senior writer for Portfolio, says the paper, like business journalism generally, clung to outdated formulas. Wall Street coverage tilted toward personality-driven stories, not deconstructing balance sheets or figuring out risks. Stocks were the focus, when the problems were brewing in derivatives. “We were following the old model,” he says.
Where did that old model come from? Monday’s Journal happened to carry a review of a new book by former Journal exec Richard Tofel — a biography of Barney Kilgore, the legendary editor who made the Journal what it is today (or, rather, what it was till recently).
Kilgore believed in humanizing articles on even complicated subjects, insisting that editors and writers try to make room in news stories, whenever possible, for anecdotes, narrative details and portraits of individuals, thus bringing topics alive for that “average reader.”
So was it Kilgore’s fault the Journal failed to offer early insight into the real estate crisis, derivatives, the instability of the banking system, and so on? We can’t blame him exclusively for that; the approach credited to him is one that is nearly universal in journalism today. The reasons behind the Journal’s weak showing in the current crisis seem of more recent vintage.
Still, there’s a lesson here in the limits of the daily journalism world view. Sometimes the heart of the story lies beyond “one person’s tale.” Sometimes, as Felix Salmon’s fascinating piece in the latest Wired — The Formula That Killed Wall Street — shows, it lies with a mathematical insight. Sometimes we need to turn to demographics, or history, or science.
Reading the Journal’s review of the Kilgore book, I did get an odd feeling that there was some elephant-in-the-room avoidance going on. Both review and book laud the man who shaped the modern Wall Street Journal at the very moment that new owners are radically altering, if not dismantling, that institution. Yet the review did not even offer a tip of a hat or wink of an eye to that fact.
It’s not easy to write about change at a newspaper in the pages of that newspaper, but it’s one of the things we expect our independent press to be able to handle when the occasion arises. This occasion is one that appears to have been handled by sheer ostrich-like avoidance.