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Q+A: Author Dean Starkman on The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark

Saturday, February 08, 2014

 

GoLocalProv Editor-at-Large and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Dean Starkman released his new book: The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism to largely positive reviews in January.

In the book, Starkman exposes the business media’s failure to investigate and report the financial practices that led to the 2008 mortgage crisis. This failure exposed the changing culture of media and a shift away from protection of public interests.

GoLocalProv asked Dean Starkman to talk about The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark, the press’s role to serve as the fourth estate, and more:

1) What motivated you to write this book?

Basically, the crisis did it. As I’ve said elsewhere, there were a couple of responses among business reporters to the near collapse of the financial system in 2008: one was that this was a terrible thing that shouldn’t be allowed to happen again, and was meanwhile, a helluva story; the other response was that this was beyond the Pale, full stop. I was in the latter camp and felt the moment required a rethinking of all the systems that were meant to prevent a manmade catastrophe of this scale from occurring. This very much included the financial media, the business press, which makes implicit claims of mastery over this particular beat – Wall Street and finance – and yet was as caught as off-guard as everyone else. Somehow, a knowledge failure of this proportion needed to be understood. Were the distortions in the financial system so complex and unknowable that it was beyond the capacity of journalism to report on, and through journalism, for the public to understand? I wanted to find out and learned the answer was, “no.” There was so much information for journalism to report on. The problem was it, for the most part, chose not to. That was the main problematic, and motivation, for the book.

2) How did your experience as an investigative reporter and your reporting for the Wall Street Journal prepare you for writing this book?

My time at the Projo, from 1986 to 1996, was formative for me personally and professionally. I pretty much grew up as a journalist then and came to understand how important a role that newspapers (now we should call them news organizations) can play in the life of the community. Rhode Islanders of a certain age will remember that those were pretty dark days in terms of state and local governance. Organized crime, the Patriarca crime family, was still a force to be reckoned with, and at the very least, it occupied a big space in the state’s cultural and psychic landscape. We know today it was on the decline but it was hard to tell at the time, just as it was hard to tell how far its influence reached. The paper, run by the under-appreciated Michael Metcalf and edited by the great Jim Wyman, was a bulwark against the mob. State government, meanwhile, was in deep trouble. When I arrived Joe Bevilacqua had just been impeached as chief justice of the state Supreme Court for consorting with mob figures. His successor, Tom Fay, would, too, be impeached. Ed DiPrete was governor, and he would eventually be indicted for contracting corruption. The State House was nobody’s idea of model government. Cianci’s second tenure would end again in handcuffs.

And of course RISDIC collapsed. All this would tend to make a deep impression on a young investigative reporter, and it certainly did me. It should me how pervasive corruption can be once it takes root and the damage it can do. The RISDIC disaster (the 1991 collapse of a crony-run private deposit-insurer that exposed the insolvency of many of Rhode Island’s crony-run credit unions and the complicity of state officials high and low) was sort of the system caving in on itself. To me, it confirmed a growing sense that corrupt systems are unsustainable (not to mention incredibly unjust).

I took these experiences with me to The Wall Street Journal and may have had more of an eye for institutional and systemic problems than most. The Journal at the time was (and remains) a leader of business and financial news, which I came to understand was a separate journalism subculture from the one I had known. What struck me about working there is that I found that what was defined as “news” could be a lot narrower than what I was used to. I sometimes felt we were excessively focused on investor interests and that we went to great lengths to avoid looking at the impact businesses were having on the society at large. On the other hand, my time there obviously gave me grounding in financial matters and essentially helped to demystify a lot of things. Business to me became just another beat and Wall Street just another business. I also learned that having squadrons of lawyers and accountants with Ivy League degrees was no guarantee a corporation was telling the truth or in any way doing the right thing.

It may not come as a surprise at this point if I say that the near collapse of the global financial system did nothing to disabuse me of the idea that corrupt systems are both unjust and unsustainable.

My experiences at the Projo and the Journal set me on a path to thinking about journalism issues presented by the crisis.

3) In the midst of the massive changes in media, do you think journalism has lost its ability to serve as the 4th Estate?

I certainly do think it lost its ability, its voice, its confidence, and its sense of mission during the years leading up to the mortgage crisis. I attribute all that in the book to three factors: the collapse of federal regulation during the Bush years, which severely lessened journalism's impact; the collapsing business models within journalism that you refer to, which both eroded resources and especially journalism's confidence; and a related event, cultural problems within business news, the increased emphasis on access journalism and the decline of accountability journalism.

The crash led to a renewed energy on the part of the media in general -- there was extremely impressive coverage in its aftermath. But as you suggest, we live in an age of massive disruption and sweeping change. People who say they know what's going to happen are either kidding themselves or consultants, or both. It is true, the Internet has led to flowering of new sites, forms, idioms, and approaches to journalism. And that's all to the good. Optimists point to the fact that sites like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and others have managed to overcome the obstacles that digital media economics pose to journalism to produce some great work.

But that's just the problem. The economics of Internet based journalism has so far not been kind to the kind of time-consuming, expensive, bespoke, patience-trying accountability investigations that set American journalism apart. The profit margins are just not there as they were in print. Journalism is expensive and needs some kind of subsidy, which it just doesn't have right now. And when optimists point to the flowering of new news organizations, whether it's Talking Points Memo, Business Insider, Vox Media, I look to two things: the relatively small volume of accountability reporting they produce, if any, and the dramatic collapse of that same capacity among industrial era news organizations, particularly regional and local papers. The LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the Providence Journal, and so many others are doing what they can but they're basically financial disaster areas.

So, yes, the future of journalism's ability to serve as a check on power is a huge question mark. But one thing that everyone should realize is that overall, our reporting and fact-gathering infrastructure has been weakened far below acceptable levels, and needs to get stronger, especially at the local and regional level. What we have just isn't good enough.

4) What has been the early feedback on the book from journalists and from Wall Street?

We're in what I'm calling a latency period. It's too soon to tell. And let's be realistic: the vast majority of books published sink without a trace, most of them deservedly so.

The quiet feedback I've gotten from working journalists has been universally positive, and that's been very gratifying. I've received a couple of reviews, one very good, one euphoric. I’m a “best read of 2014” in Canada. The real question is whether influential publications take up the book, give it a good scrub, and come back with a favorable verdict. And now this week, the New Yorker weighs in with a very respectful review. At some point, I suspect conventional business journalism and the journalism establishment in general will have to respond. Then, we'll know, but not before. Here's hoping.

5) What is your hope on the impact of the book?

Just to change the trajectory of the debate about journalism itself -- so, a very modest goal! But really, as I said in the book, the shocking and system-wide financial collapse comes at a time that journalism itself is in an existential crisis. What better time to reexamine journalism's role in society -- what works, what doesn't work? What's a core value, what's more peripheral? Who are our role models and forebears? What's the line of authority that we can trace through journalism's long history to use as a road map to the future?

These aren't small questions, I'll admit. Perhaps I'm not the right one to take them on. Who knows? On the other hand, I felt it was time somebody did.

 

Order your copy of The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism here

 

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