On Monday afternoon, September 15, my new issue of Newsweek arrived in the mail just as the fear on Wall Street began to morph into unbridled panic. By then, investment powerhouses Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch had been wiped out, while insurance giant AIG teetered on the brink.
Flipping open Newsweek, I knew the magazine had gone to print over the weekend and wouldn't have the most up-to-date information on the financial calamity that erupted Sunday and spilled over into Monday. But I was curious about what kind of financial coverage the magazine offered up since, during the previous news week cycle, the government had stepped in and made the unprecedented move of bailing out troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
It was no secret, as Newsweek editors put their latest issue to bed, that the credit and mortgage crisis was gaining strength and that there was something seriously wrong with America's financial markets. Yet as I looked through that entire issue of Newsweek, I found only one page dedicated to financial news.
Just one page.
Curious, I counted how many Newsweek pages in that same edition were set aside for campaign-related coverage.
The arrival of Black September on Wall Street focused an unwanted spotlight on the cracks in the United States economy, not to mention free market capitalism. In terms of journalism, Black September also highlighted deep deficiencies. Namely, how the mainstream media went AWOL for much of 2008 in covering the U.S. economy and the state of the financial markets.
Blinded by its obsession with the presidential campaign (an obsession that has too often revolved around tactics and trivia), the press this summer all but ignored the unfolding financial story at a time when the public announced, week after week, that it was starved for more economic reporting and that the economy was, without question and perhaps without precedent, the single most pressing issue for the presidential campaign.
But that didn't matter. Because prior to September 15, the press couldn't be bothered. The press had its Story of the Year, thank you very much, and it wasn't going to budge off it, not even a little.
Preoccupied with covering a presidential campaign that reporters and pundits deemed to be fun and entertaining, the press, for much of the year, walked away from its responsibility to inform the public about an array of different topics simultaneously. Instead, the press, and especially television news, pretty much announced that it could only (or would only) cover one big story at a time (the campaign), unless a hurricane arrived, and then it would cover two.
"Rather than focus, in those [preceding] days and weeks, on the incidents that led to today's [stock] plunge, general-interest news outlets focused fairly myopically on ... the presidential campaign," noted Megan Garber at CJR.org.
And that wasn't just a hunch. It was a fact. Here's what the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded last month after undertaking an extensive study of the media's handling of economic news: "While the public considers the economy its No. 1 concern, for instance, the media have been far more interested in the presidential campaign -- by a factor of nearly 5-to-1 between January 2007 and June 2008."
Talk about a disconnect.
"This has been the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. There is no question about it," a New York University professor told The Wall Street Journal last week. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the national press missed the story. (The more niche business press, obviously, gave the story much greater coverage in recent months. My beef is with the more general press corps' handling of the story.)
And again, this wasn't a case of where the press should have provided a community service by rigorously covering a staid, boring topic and forced news consumers to eat their vegetables. In fact, it was the opposite. It was news consumers who wanted to be informed, and it was the press that balked at covering serious stuff. It was the press that refused to pay attention to what voters routinely announced was the most important story of the election season.
A recent New York Times/CBS News poll, taken before the Black September clouds exploded over Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, asked voters which issue represented their top concern during the presidential campaign, and 48 percent answered the economy and jobs. Ten percent chose gas and energy policy, and an additional 10 percent selected the cost of health care. I'd suggest all three of those could fall under the umbrella of economic concerns, which meant that for a staggering 78 percent of voters, this campaign was about pocketbook issues.
Even the shocking financial news last week couldn't radically alter the media's focus.
For instance, late on Friday, after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced the mind-bending bailout of hundreds of billions of dollars in bad debt, a deal he pitched to congressional leaders by explaining behind closed doors that if the deal wasn't put together, the U.S. economy would soon stop functioning, I clicked on Time's website to see which stories the venerable news organization had tagged as the most important at that moment. These were the main headlines being promoted by Time.com and the headlines that appeared at the top of the site's homepage:
Talk about being pot-committed. The White House campaign remains the story the press is dedicated to over-reporting (the beast must be fed!), and nothing is going to change that. I'm pretty sure that if the Mexican army marched across the Texas border, by week's end, Time would be back to promoting campaign updates at the top of its website.
Aside from the media's addiction to easy-to-produce campaign updates, I'd suggest there are at least three other reasons the press backed off the Wall Street story for so long. One, as Gary Shilling, president of a New Jersey investment firm, told a local newspaper columnist last week, was that the press has spent too many years being a "cheerleader" for the economy instead of a detached skeptic, and when Wall Street went into denial about the bursting credit bubble within the past year, too often the media followed.
There's little doubt that within the past decade or two, the news media's relationship with corporate business, and specifically Wall Street, has changed dramatically. Instead of the press, as Shilling noted, serving as an independent counterbalance on big business and a skeptic when needed, the press seemed to fall in love with business and Wall Street in particular. The press became enraptured by the riches the firms produced and celebrated their success with glee. (For pure idol worship, read Vanity Fair's 2006 "Greenwich's Outrageous Fortunes," a 7,500-word toast to a new breed of hedge fund kings and the Connecticut palaces they were constructing.)
Wall Street's runaway wealth in recent years seemed to present a particular appeal for the elite media circles of Manhattan. For people making booming six-figure and even low seven-figure salaries in the news business, the scent of unadulterated luxury that drifted up the island of Manhattan from Wall Street became increasingly intoxicating. As the two stratified social circles seemed to intertwine more and more, it became increasingly obvious, via news coverage, that Wall Street bankers were seen by the press -- were often celebrated by the press -- as dazzling cultural heroes and the men who made New York City truly dynamic and modern.
That tangled relationship (i.e. the media's crush on Wall Street) propped up the second big problem: The press has been worshiping Wall Street big hitters for so long, I'm not sure the media remember how to throw the necessary darts at money barons any more.
For instance, prior to Black September, one of the only detailed articles Newsweek published about Wall Street in the previous month was a profile of a prominent banker in the August 11 issue. The piece essentially read like a celebrity sketch, as readers learned about the banker's palatial Fifth Avenue home, where the banker "hosts the beau monde of Manhattan"; "a grand salon" where media and entertainment executives gathered "for evenings of high living, highbrow discourse, high finance -- and the high art of exercising influence."
Indeed, the banker's life "already seems a charmed one," Newsweek gushed.
The problem was that the magazine had its nose pressed so tightly up against the Fifth Avenue glass windows -- it was so busy checking out the swells inside -- that the news outlet forgot to include, in the article about Wall Street, any salient information regarding the health of Wall Street.
My third hunch is that the general press backed off aggressively covering Wall Street and the unfolding credit crisis in 2007 and 2008 because it would have meant raising all sorts of uncomfortable questions about greed, criminality, idiocy, and the nature of capitalism. And for a press corps already taunted and attacked for having a liberal bias, those represented difficult issues to discuss. So, for the most part, they were not.
None of that, though, excuses the fact that for most of this year, news consumers were clamoring for updates about the economy and the press couldn't have cared less.
Admittedly, there were times in August, particularly during the Olympic Games, when the public's interest in the economy waned, and also when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike came ashore in early September. But for months leading up to the Wall Street collapse, there were clear signs that Americans were starved for news about the economy, news that the press simply refused to provide because it just wasn't a story the press wanted to chew on, to chatter about, and to pontificate over. (It wasn't fun like the campaign.)
For instance, for the week of August 4-10, 26 percent of the public said the economy was the story they were following most closely, making it the most important news story of the cycle. But the press set aside just 3 percent of coverage for that story during that seven-day span.
In fact, if you average together the weeks between June and mid-September, 23 percent of the public told the Pew Research Center that the economy and related issues (i.e. housing, gas prices, etc.) were the news stories they followed most closely. Almost one in four said no other story was more important to them.
What percentage of the news hole did those economic stories take up between June and mid-September? Five percent. I don't think the press could be more out of step with news consumers if they tried.
During that same period, what percentage of the news hole was taken up by campaign coverage? A whopping 31 percent, which meant the press devoted blockbuster coverage to the campaign every single week. (Quick: Between June 15 and August 15, can you remember a single campaign news story that demanded roadblock coverage from the press? Neither can I.)
Poll after poll this summer indicated voters were focused like a laser on the economy. The press? Not so much. During the Monday-to-Friday week of September 8-12, the only reason a single issue related to the economy even made it into the top 10 stories covered that week by the network newscasts was because the CBS Evening News ran a special segment on John McCain's and Barack Obama's positions on taxes and other fiscal policies. And that was the same week Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went broke.
That CBS fiscal report ran a total of seven minutes. By contrast, that week, the three network newscasts devoted a total of 77 minutes to covering Sarah Palin and the pending arrival of Hurricane Ike, according to the weekly tabulation at the Tyndall Report.
Indeed, the disparity in coverage has often been beyond staggering. Here's one concrete example. For the week of June 23-29, 51 percent of the public said they followed stories related to the economy the most closely. But the media only devoted 12 percent of their coverage to those stories that week.
Or consider that for the week of September 1-7, network news devoted 63 percent of its on-air time to the presidential campaign and just 1 percent to the economy. On cable TV, it was even more lopsided; 73 percent for the campaign and 1 percent for the economy.
That wasn't even the worst of it. For the previous week, August 25-31, network news set aside 79 percent of its time and energy to covering the campaign. For cable TV, it was an almost-impossible-to-fathom 94 percent. Obviously, there was no time to cover the economy that week.
Yet despite the tsunami of political coverage, 13 percent of Americans that last week in August still insisted that the economy was the news story they were following most closely.
Although, honestly, they must have used a microscope to find any actual news coverage.