Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

The Media’s role in the financial crisis

In Around the web on January 27, 2009 at 1:40 pm

[This article is about why journalism is so important. Locally, the UDJ can never do an effective job until it is independent and locally owned, and also independent internally from its advertisers... as professional, feisty journalism used to be. -DS]

by Dan Gilmor
TPM Cafe
Excerpts
Full article here

Our government’s current operating principle seems to be bailing out people who were culpable in the financial meltdown. If so, journalists are surely entitled to billions of dollars.

Why? Journalists were grossly deficient when it came to covering the reckless behavior, sleaze and willful ignorance of fundamental economics, much of which was reasonably obvious to anyone who was paying attention, that inflated the housing and credit bubbles of the past decade. Their frequent cheerleading for bad practices — and near-total failure to warn us, repeatedly and relentlessly, of what was building — made a bad situation worse…

It’s not as if this is the first time a big issue has had too little discussion while there was still time to fix the problem. Journalism has repeatedly failed to warn the public about huge, visible risks. The media’s complicity in the Iraq War-mongering and 1990s stock bubble were the most infamous recent examples until the financial bust came along, but the willful blindness to reality was uncannily similar…

And even when the reporting was solid, which was rare enough, news organizations didn’t follow up in appropriate ways. If we can foresee a catastrophe, it’s not enough to mention it once or twice and then move on.

That common practice suggests an opportunity. When we can predict an inevitable calamity if we continue along the current path, we owe it to the public to do everything we can to encourage a change in that destructive behavior.

In practice, this means activism. It means relentless campaigning to point out what’s going wrong, and demanding corrective action from those who can do something about it.

So in Florida, Arizona and California, among other epicenters of the housing bubble, newspapers might have told their readers — including governmental officials — the difficult truth. They could have explained, again and again, that the housing bubble would inevitably lead, at least locally, to personal financial disaster for many in their regions, not to mention fiscal woes for local and state governments. How many should have done this, given the media’s at least partial reliance on advertising from those who profited from the bubbles? Any that cared to do their jobs…

Californians are especially practiced at pretending not to see what’s visible in front of them. The state’s fiscal crisis is far worse than most, in large part because the governor and state legislature — with media winks and nods — generated a torrent of new red ink, via borrowing, to cover new spending and earlier debts. The piper is now demanding his payment, and his price threatens to be ruinous. (Will this be our national fate in a few years?)…

Once upon a time, news people went on campaigns when they saw the need. Sometimes this led to yellow journalism, as when newspaper owners used their publications to stir up the populace in dangerous ways. At other times, however, old-fashioned press campaigns led to change for the better; back when editorial pages had more influence in communities, a few courageous newspaper editors in the South campaigned for school integration, and made an enormous difference.

Journalistic activism — precisely what we need despite most journalists’ disdain for the idea — won’t save newspapers that are suffering from a perfect storm of dwindling leadership and advertising losses. But as Online Journalism Review‘s Robert Niles recently wrote, journalists should “accept the responsibility to demand action” based on what they learn when they do their jobs right.

The media’s collective irresponsibility has ill-served its audience. If journalists want to keep the audience they have, never mind building credibility for the future, they need to become the right kind of activists. More than ever, we need what they do, when they do it well.


[The right of freely examining public characters and measures, and a free communication of the people thereon has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right. -James Madison, 1798]


  1. There is also the question of whether the media is exacerbating the effects of the financial crisis by sensationalizing it. The sort of lazy journalism that failed to adequately cover the downward spiral may also be perpetuating a lack of purchasing confidence. Too many news outlets seize on any dramatic story, like the CFO of Fannie Mae committing suicide being republished internationally ad nauseum.

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,526 other followers