McGuire on Media

Covering values is not where business journalism excels

Robert J. Samuelson on Newsweek.com says Wall Street is kaput.  He says it has been done in by greed.  Amen, Amen, Amen.

The obituaries on the American economic system can be found all over the web, but I thought Samuelson’s was especially smart and pointed out the sad history of such economic implosions. He writes that “we’re being reminded of some of the dumb ideas and reckless choices that helped deliver us to our current debacle.”

The Monday quarterbacking continued on Monday as the market dove another 370 points  when investors started to doubt whether the administration plan will actually solve the problem. Samuelson returned to Newsweek.com Monday to announce, “We are in a full-blown crisis because investors and financial managers—the people who run banks, investment banks, hedge funds, insurance companies—have lost that trust.”

Words like greed and trust are values words.  It is fascinating to me that journalists can talk about values after the crisis has exploded. If we’re going to avoid this kind of crisis in the future, vigilant journalists have to start focusing on values words and they need to start with courage and tenacity. 

There is ample evidence journalists lacked both courage and tenacity. I had an animated conversation today with one of the mainstream press’ chief critics, my colleague and friend here at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass communication, Dan Gillmor. He reminded me of his early warnings on the mortgage crisis. In that blog post in 2005 Dan wrote “The newspaper stories have the usual caveats. But in my view they don’t offer the level of strenuous warning that they should….What we’re getting is, in effect, encouragement to join the crowd that’s inflating a new bubble, more dangerous by far than even the stock bubble of the late ’90s.”

Dan’s incredible prescience is underscored by the last line of that entry. “This is going to get so ugly.” So, there were journalists and observer who knew where this thing was headed but it is indisputable that few major journalistic outlets sounded the alarm like Gillmor did in his well-read blog.

And, it is ugly. This mess should not be treated as academic.  This government bailout is going to cost our readers and viewers real money out of their too-real pockets.

Dan argues the alarm never came because of bad journalism and a “house” kind of attitude in which journalists became cheerleaders. In a January 2005, entry Dan criticized a newspaper article he said “disturbs me.” Dan wrote, “It (the article) invites readers of modest means to throw everything into real estate and take enormous financial risks.” In that piece he also observed “If we are in a bubble, or even if there’s a moderate correction, the newbies in this particular lottery are going to get absolutely screwed.” Again, the prescience was remarkable, but I argue there’s something more at play here.

I respect and honor Dan Gillmor’s argument that better journalism always helps. I believe another giant problem is the failure, difficulty and inability of journalists to cover values like greed, justice and equity. In our polarized political landscape unfettered capitalism has become the “value” we honor. Virtue has little place in a rational debate. Too often when virtues, the concept of right and wrong, and personal responsibility enter into a journalistic conversation the “liberal” accusation is leveled and journalists inevitably back off.

That’s why observers like Dan appropriately get the sense that journalists are “in the bag” for the establishment.  The more cynical observers believe that behavior comes from a desire to protect advertisers.  I don’t believe that. I do believe the capitalism “bullies” choke off responsible coverage with their attitude that might as well say,”any dummy knows free market behavior is the altar at which we must worship.”

It is not the altar at which we must worship.

Watchdog journalists have to question the suppositions that ignore rapaciousness and force justice, moderation and equity into oblivion. The starting point in covering business seems to be that there is no limit to profit or personal gain. There’s an author named Charles Handy who wrote an article in a book titled Corporate Responsibility from Harvard Business Review.  Handy’s article is titled “What’s a Business For?” He writes that a business has to be about more than “making a profit full-stop.” He says there has to be a greater social purpose for any business. 

Imagine what business journalism might look like if journalists started inquiring of CEO’s about their greater corporate purpose. The power of journalists developing a template for exploring corporate values and pursuing that template in their coverage of local and national businesses is mind boggling.

Rather than assuming that cost-cutting, treating people like assets without human dignity, and a constantly increasing bottom line is the “American way” what if justice and fairness became as important to every story as today’s share price.

The Wall Street implosion is more than a bump on the road.  John McCain says it is our worst national crisis since World War II and who’s to argue? There is a lot of finger-pointing and blame going on, but I am more interested in avoiding the next major economic debacle.

My friend Dan Gillmor is correct to contend that better journalism and less cheerleading is required. I argue it is just as crucial that journalists figure out how to cover values that protect all Americans and not just the greedy ones who repeatedly push our economic system to the precipice. Watchdog journalism is not just about facts. It must be about whether America is being guided by the right values.