The New Stars of Journalism
June 2009

by Ron Steinman

A friend sent me the following the other day.

Mr. Thomas Jefferson "on banks" said in 1802:

"I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered."

Were Mr. Jefferson alive today I wonder how he would feel as he reviewed our current economic crisis. Call him prescient. Call him a man with a remarkable nose for the future. Whatever you call him, he certainly defines our current crises dead-on. And he did it 207 years ago.

I live in New York. Growing up, I first turned to the comic pages of the many newspapers that flooded my home. The comic pages are all but dead. Sports, always major in New York, came second. Sports are even bigger today than then. But with most New York teams not doing very well, and with Mr. Jefferson's words ringing in my ears, I have a confession to make. With the economy more exciting to watch and analyze, there are days I turn to the business section of my newspaper or on many Web sites, first. I know that I will discover something new each morning and that my emotional juices will flow as only a well-played game used to guarantee.

Until the current economic crisis, I rarely read anything in detail in the financial pages. I would check the Dow Jones Averages to see how my investments were doing. Now I usually do that several times a day online because it is easy and the information is fresh. In the past, I sometimes read features about economics. Anecdotal stories in newspapers and magazines were easier to read. Too many facts and hard to understand what I considered financial, well, almost babble, made me run from most business news. The feature articles I now read help explain complicated economic principles through example, personality, biography of people and places, and stories of success or failure. The standout for economic features was, and still is, the Wall Street Journal. Other newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune were not, for me, always at their best making clear when explaining what economists said in impossible to understand charts, graphs and overly-complicated dissertations about finance. Barron's, The Economist, Forbes and The Financial Times were even muddier in how each explained economics. Today because of the economic mess, they have a very high standing in the pantheon of economic news purveyors.

Until I started copying the following names into my notebook for future reference, they were bylines I glossed over on my way to other parts of my newspaper or other sections of news sites online. Here are a few of them that are now in residence in your household through your newspaper, on your computer screen, sometimes on TV, and on the radio. Some you know, others you may not. There are Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post and Paul Krugman of The New York Times. There are Joe Nocera, Floyd Norris and others who are easy to identify. Then we have Andrew Ward, Bernard Simon, Alan Rappeport, Krishna Goha, Alan Beattie, David Cho, Binnyamnin Applebaum, Eric Dash, David Ip, Daniel Wagner and a host of others writing for newspapers, online sites, magazines and appearing on TV who in a normal world we, meaning I, would not think of listening to or reading.

They all have an important role because we as consumers of news have inherited a new language in which those writers try daily to write. I am thankful for these changes in our language because of our economic woes. So a shout out to the world of business for adding words to how we think everyday, but not necessarily how we use them. Strap yourself in for the ride we are about to take. There are collateral triggers, quants, toxic assets, toxic securities, underwater neighbors, credit default swaps, ratings arbitrage, regulatory arbitrage, the shadow financial system, stress tests for banks, naked short selling, and those formidable twins, the technology stock bubble and the housing bubble. The other day there was a column in The New York Times about "haircuts" as a financial instrument, of sorts. Haircuts? What other common term or theme would economic writers eventually possess as theirs?

Did business journalists fail us by not reporting in detail the hidden or even the overt problems in the economy? Did these men and women, once the orphans of journalism, not take seriously where the economy was headed? If they were vigilant, why did we not heed their cries about the falling sky? Why were they not more forceful about the potential risks the economy faced in the laissez-faire attitude of the major moneymakers often aided and abetted by a blind government? Newspaper editors and TV producers were probably complicit in their failure to turn us on about the coming crisis in the economy. After all, business news is often dull and does not usually sell newspapers or get good TV ratings. But so as not to blame the business reporters for everything, we as a public, and I include myself, should have been more vigilant about the cheaters and trimmers in our midst.

From now on we should keep a watchful eye on these "names" because these are the men and women who have the unenviable task of explaining to us our past, the present and what the future holds as we battle our way out of the current economic crisis. Clarity and investigative reporting is in their hands. If not, it should be. Those who report on the economy now have our attention. As the new boldface names, they should not be afraid to take us by the scruff of our necks, and shake us into reality. They are the new celebrities of journalism who will be with us for a long time to come. We should get used to them being around and when things get better, we should not ignore them as we did in the past.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's

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