The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, by Dean Starkman

A demonstration of the need for modern muckrakers also celebrates the best work journalism can do, finds Tim Luckhurst

February 13, 2014

In 1920, Walter Lippmann called upon journalists to tell “the news about the news”. Professional newsroom culture has rarely encouraged such reflection, and this is a pity, because it takes inside knowledge to do the job well. Dean Starkman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, has that experience and here he turns it to excellent use. This impassioned volume is not simply an account of how journalists ignored the colossal risk created by financial derivatives backed by sub-prime mortgages, although it explains this with great clarity. It is a descriptive celebration of the best work journalism can do, combining historical understanding with critical awareness of the challenges posed by “new digitism”: the delusion that citizens communicating online can replace professional, public-interest journalism.

Starkman’s ideal is the Great Story, an extended investigative report that explains a complex problem to a large audience and speaks truth to power. Such reporting exists in assorted media, but it is most often published in newspapers or magazines. The author identifies as a pioneering example Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1902-04 as a series in McClure’s Magazine. This exposé of one of the most closed and powerful corporations in the world stands among the finest achievements of the muckrakers, the new wave of reporters who, at the beginning of the 20th century, seized the attention of the American middle class.

The muckrakers’ investigations were fuelled by moral indignation, and Starkman has this in spades. For him, journalism is divided into two essential types, access reporting and accountability reporting. The former “tells readers what powerful actors say” while the latter “tells readers what they do”. He champions accountability journalism and, while recognising the need for its alternative, explains why reporting based on access to business elites failed utterly during the crash of 2008-09. To produce access journalism, a reporter must get close to decision-makers and retain their confidence. Accountability journalism, in contrast, is subversive; it seeks out inconvenient facts and dissident perspectives.

He demonstrates how, in the first decade of this century, business reporting began to lionise access journalism and to privilege its ability to super-serve insider elites. The democratic needs of the public sphere were overlooked in favour of scoops that offered a competitive advantage to business consumers. In 2002-03, a few reporters did explore the sub-prime mortgage market, recognising the risks inherent in predatory lending and working to expose them. But their efforts made scant impact. Mainstream business journalism failed to investigate the sub-prime lenders and their Wall Street backers. Journalism designed to serve financiers and investors not only missed the story, it made itself part of the culture that caused the crash.

Starkman fears that such failure may become commonplace. He deplores the “future of news consensus”, popular among some media academics, which perceives only grounds for celebration in the declining scale and profitability of big institutional media companies. He questions how a shrinking infrastructure for fact-gathering and the growth of so-called peer production can serve the public sphere effectively. He is concerned that internet-based models for journalism have yet to identify reliable ways of delivering important investigative stories that can hold power to account and change society for the better.

Starkman displays excessive distaste for the popular, mass-market journalism that, in the UK if not in the US, has brought reporting of the type he most appreciates into the homes of millions. He perceives excellence in nuanced, long-form investigations, but declines to recognise that titles such as the Daily Mirror once made such reporting accessible to ordinary voters. He parades a fashionable dislike for Rupert Murdoch and thinks too little about economic models that may sustain great reporting and maintain its independence from the state. But these are quibbles.

This is an excellent book in the “hackademic” tradition represented in the UK by work from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the fine series edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair for Abramis Academic Publishing. It confirms its publisher, Columbia Journalism Review, as a powerful competitor in an emerging genre that is doing so much to improve the study of journalism and to make it relevant to the profession it describes.

The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism

By Dean Starkman
Columbia Journalism Review/Columbia University Press, 368pp, £16.95 and £15.99
ISBN 9780231158183 and 1536288 (e-book)
Published 14 January 2014

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