I’m a journalist, media critic, and the author of The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).
Basically, I spent the first 20 or so years of my professional life performing public-interest investigations and the last seven as a media critic thinking and writing about such things, as well as more generally about journalism’s past, present, and future. As a critic, my orientation is fairly straightforward: I believe accountability reporting to be journalism's core function. Period. Full stop. In future-of-news debates, I support business models that make such reporting possible and oppose those (e.g. most free content models) that do not.
I'm currently an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, running its business-media section, called The Audit, which offers review and comment on business news, as well as on the business of news and the parallel debate swirling around the future of journalism. I also co-edit The Best Business Writing series, now on its third volume, also published by Columbia University Press, organize panels and conferences and have been asked to speak at journalism and media forums around the world. Highlights of my criticism work are “Power Problem,” a content analysis and critique of pre-crisis reporting on Wall Street and mortgage lenders; “Hamster Wheel,” on ramped-up newsroom productivity requirements; “The Price of Admission,” on the problems of access reporting; and “Confidence Game,” a critique of digital-news theory. All these pieces won national awards for media criticism or essay writing.
Since August 2013, I’ve also been working as a fellow with the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, allowing me to keep a hand in investigative reporting, mostly about Wall Street and the aftermath of the financial crisis. I’m also a fellow at the Central European University’s Center for Media and Communications Studies, in Budapest, Hungary, exploring the problem of creating sustainable, independent media in Central Europe.
My most important work to date is The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism. As the title implies, it’s an expansion of my study of pre-crisis mainstream business reporting and probes the question of why the public, and the press itself, were so caught off guard by the Crash of 2008. But it tries to do quite a bit more. The book offers a view not just of the crisis, but of journalism itself: what was missing from journalism then, what's needed now. The Introduction, for instance, frames an argument about what I see as journalism’s fundamental divide – access reporting and accountability reporting – and the perennial competition between the two. The book is deeply historical and traces business journalism's problems to its very DNA in the early 20th century when business news was essentially a market-messaging function. I contrast that approach with the work of the great Ida Tarbell and other muckrakers who viewed business and finance through an entirely different lens. Three chapters then document how accountability reporting, mostly in the alternative press, captured the rise of subprime and its implications for the financial system while the mainstream business press basically missed the story. The Epilogue, titled "Digitism, Corporatism, and the Future of Journalism," discusses obstacles that the digital revolution poses to public-interest journalism. Prepublication reviews have been quite positive and are summarized under the “book” tab.
I sometimes joke that my work as a newspaper reporter ran the gamut from public corruption to white-collar crime. In fact, it ranges fairly widely but does center on the intersection of business and government and related social-justice issues. My first investigative story dates to the mid-1980s, when I explored a contentious unionization struggle at Southwire Corp., a steel-making giant in Carrolton, Georgia, that had had a long record of worker health-and-safety and labor-law violations. My journalism career for the next decade or so was punctuated by a series of public-interest investigations, first in Alabama at the Anniston Star and then for ten years at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, where my work focused largely on organized crime and public corruption, two chronic problems afflicting that state. One series exposed state contracting irregularities that led, ultimately, to the indictment of the Rhode Island governor and his son. Another revealed crimes and cover-ups in the state court system, leading to the indictment of a sitting state Supreme Court chief justice and a former state House speaker. That series led to a Pulitzer Prize.
At The Wall Street Journal, I covered white-collar crime and securities law, along with conventional business news that included high-stakes takeover battles, corporate features, and in-depth stock analysis. I’m particularly proud of my work on stock frauds by real-estate firms, the fiasco that was the World Trade Center reconstruction, and on the abuse of the government’s power of eminent domain, reporting that was credited in Congressional testimony and elsewhere with sparking national debate on the topic. Most importantly, the Journal gave me the rare opportunity not just to peer into the inner workings of great corporations and Wall Street giants, but to experience the inner-life of a storied national news organization at the height of its greatness.
My time at The Columbia Journalism Review has given me that rarest of privileges for a reporter: to step away from the daily flow of news and the contentious battles with powerful institutions and reflect on the great journalism problems: how principled journalism is created, what kind of context is needed, what kind is harmful.
The good story, I believe, is investigative, at least in the sense that it looks behind an idealized façade to reveal the reality beneath. Tension and surprise result from the gap between the purported reality – the aura projected by, say, a judge's robes or an Ameriquest blimp– and reality itself – the chief justice skimming a slush fund or a mortgage boiler-room operation.
Journalism's best and least-understood asset is that it's fun. It's fun because the news is fun, and the news is fun because the gap between appearance and reality – with all its tension and surprise – is everywhere. Enjoy the site.