Blaming the messenger, and why not?


A program held at Rockefeller University last week—an Oxford-style debate on the subject of the financial crisis—inspires and dismays. It inspires because it demonstrates how much can be learned when knowledgeable people communicate honestly and intelligently, even where they disagree. It dismays because it contrasts so sharply with the quality of the stuff being served up on the subject by so much of the news media, political reporters in particular.

With funding from the Rosenkranz Foundation, the debate was sponsored by Intelligence Squared US, the stateside companion to a similar program in London, and featured six debaters, three on each side of the motion: “Blame Washington more than Wall Street for the financial crisis.”

Arguing in favor of the motion were Niall Ferguson, of Harvard; John Gordon Steele, of NPR; and Nouiriel Roubini, aka Dr.Doom. Arguing against the motion were Alex Berenson, of The New York Times; Jim Chanos, of Kynikos Associates; and attorney Nell Minow.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it is a better and more enlightening discussion of the “political economics” of our financial crisis than anything I have read in any of the news, Op-Ed, or feature stories produced by the Washington press corps. More than this, mirabile dictu, one comes away from the debate not only feeling better informed, but with a certain measure of affection for all the debaters! But don’t take my word for it, read the transcript here.

In a recent blog I lamented the report that Newsweek magazine was planning to become more of an opinion journal, thereby officially abandoning the journalistic concept of objectivity. For my pains I received an email from the head of a major Washington think tank, who wrote mockingly of the idea that this was something new. His point being that Newsweek had always practiced opinion journalism. In my reply I said that he might be right, but that there was a difference between giving lip service to an ideal, and abandoning it altogether.

I’m reminded of that exchange, and mention it here, because it shines a light on yet another dimension of our journalistic impoverishment. Our financial and economic crises are being poorly reported not just because so many political reporters know nothing about finance or economics, but because, in an age and an industry where opinion trumps fact, they don’t have to. They just have to put on display the right kind of opinions.