March 30th, 2009 09:24 EST
Needed: Forensic Business Journalists
(Transcript of Del Marbrook`s Hot Copy #25, a weekly podcast)
When you search the web using the key words forensic accounting and forensic economics you get the impression that it`s all about litigation. Strictly defined it is. But a broader definition of those terms opens up a world of possibilities.
There isn`t a chance in hell of the American public, or any public for that matter, understanding what`s going on in the world unless more journalists become forensic specialists, particularly in the field of globalization. The corporados are eating our lunch because we don`t understand how they`re doing it.
That`s why Rupert Murdoch sent shivers down the spines of many journalists a week ago when he made an extravagant bid for Dow Jones and Company, the company that owns the venerable Wall Street Journal, the second biggest newspaper in the country.
What gave journalists the willies was the prospect of the man who owns the propagandistic Fox News Channel turning the Journal into a print and online facsimile of the right-wing Fox News. To my way of thinking, Mr. Murdoch`s move is certainly cause for concern. But a little perspective is in order.
First of all, the Journal`s editorial pages have always been right-wing, although not extremist. On the other hand, the Journal has done some of the best investigative reporting in the history of American journalism. That tradition would certainly be endangered by Mr. Murdoch`s sensationalizing tendencies. The Journal has always been the antithesis of such sensationalizing tabloids as Mr. Murdoch`s New York Post, which in my youth was a leftist newspaper. But the tradition has already been compromised by cost-cutting under existing management. More than 300 editorial positions have been eliminated in recent years.
The Journal has never been helpful in reporting issues where it has made up its editorial mind. Global free trade, for example. The Journal is for it, and you`re not going to get an ongoing forensic investigation into its inner workings from the Journal.
It`s often said that people read the Journal to learn how to invest their money. I hope not, because by the time the Journal or any other newspaper suggests that something might be a good investment, insiders have already seized the moment, and for the reader that moment passed before the papers went to press. Smart investing depends on rumor, luck, experience, and all too often illicit inside information. It`s true that by reading the Journal or Barron`s you can learn how the markets work, but they probably won`t help you make a killing.
So, while we may get all het up about Mr. Murdoch`s relentless and quixotic acquisitiveness, losing the Journal to a propaganda machine isn`t going to spell the end of our chief access to understanding our capitalist society, simply because the Journal has always fallen far short of that ideal, and so have all the other newspapers, magazines and newsletters, whether online or in print.
The awful fact is that for the most part we don`t know how our capitalist society works. We hear the propaganda, the people on the right saying what`s good for business is good for all of us, and the people on the left saying we need government intervention to protect and assist the underprivileged. And we even hear the moderates saying we need aggressive and imaginative capitalism moderated by a vigilant government. But what we don`t have is persistent, informed reportage about how it all works, who it benefits, how it doesn`t work, and who it doesn`t benefit, how it is corrupted and influenced.
Wall Street today is as unregulated as it was during the scandals of the 1980s. These are not victimless crimes. People are hurt by these crimes, usually the small investors, the ones who are being pressured by the current administration in Washington and by their bosses to invest their savings in the market, a market that is being rigged every day by crooks who are stealing other people`s money. And yet the guy who gets high and sticks up the local convenience store gets more press than these swindlers living high off the hog. And the demented student who shoots his fellow students and teachers gets more attention than young hot shots on Wall Street who are betraying the entire economic compact by which we live.
There are plenty of reasons for this neglect of the country`s biggest story, the way it actually works, the way an increasingly unregulated capitalist society works. First of all, editors tend to think business stories are boring, and reader surveys tend to support that view. A newspaper editor is far more likely to put a sports story on the front page than a business story, even a business scandal. Then there`s the plain scarcity of writers with enough knowledge and know-how to write the story. After that, there`s the fact that a business scandal might take months, even years to uncover, and very few news operations have a budget that can take such a hit. And finally there is the extreme difficulty of getting such stories. When you write a baseball story you assume most of your readers know quite a bit about the game, so you can use terms like dead ball and knuckle ball, presuming you and the reader share a common body of knowledge. Of course, if you`re a very good sports writer, like, say, the late Red Smith or Selena Roberts of The New York Times, you`ll write a story even newcomers can savor. But when it comes to Wall Street, free trade, globalization, and multinational trade organizations, the average reader knows only what the propagandists of the right, left and middle have said. He didn`t play the game in grade school. He didn`t spend weekends taking his children to the game. He doesn`t argue about it over drinks after work. He doesn`t bet on it. He doesn`t wear his favorite Wall Street trader`s shirt to bed. In other words, the way this country works, really works, is one hell of a tough story to report.
But if the press doesn`t tell it any better, and the people don`t get it any better, we`re doomed as a democracy. What we`re in for is a kleptocracy in which a predator class rules and steals and abuses, while the rest of us lick its boots. We`re already a long way down that road.
Americans like to know how things work. That`s why the television CSI franchise is so popular. We like to think we can solve mysteries and punish bad guys. So what we need is more business crime scene investigations. But who will do them? Who will pay for them? And what will the medium be? The ideal medium is the Internet. It can be modified, corrected, supplemented almost at will. So we have the medium, but we don`t have the message, and we don`t have the means to finance the message.
We desperately need a generation of journalists trained in forensic accounting to tell us what`s going on. We need to understand what globalization means to us, how it affects taxation, jobs, education, our national priorities, our ideals. We need to understand how immigration, for better or worse, is part of globalization. We need to understand how international trade organizations affect our sovereignty. We need to know the ramifications of the North American Union, which the the two Bush administrations and the Clinton administration have been working so hard to lay on us. We need to understand these issues as well as we understand baseball and football and basketball. And we can`t rely on the think tanks of the right or the left or the center to tell us, because they have their own agendas. They exist to pursue those agendas.
The Internet with its ability to utilize computer modelling and its fluidity is an ideal medium for this new kind of reportage.
And, at the end of the day, if all the business interests in the nation should prove so busy grinding their own axes that they will not find a way to report on the predator class, then we are going to need a generation of forensics experts at least as great-hearted as our poets and artists, people who will pursue these matters simply because it`s the right thing to do, even if they can`t get rich doing it. Isn`t our country worth it?
There is a big difference between the availability of information and the marshaling of information. Every time someone says Americans don`t understand something the people who don`t want them to understand say, quite truthfully, that the information is available. Yes, it is available. But all too often it isn`t available in ways that people busy trying to make a living can grasp. So it`s up to journalists to make it easier to grasp, and when it comes to big business that`s just what the current generation of journalists is unfit to do, unfit and unwilling. And even if they were fit and willing, they are usually not employed by bosses who are willing to let it happen.
I don`t have a solution to hand to you for this tortuous dilemma, but I`ve lived long enough to observe that if we don`t find a solution, our grandchildren are not going to enjoy the freedoms we enjoy. And if you think that`s farfetched, consider this: we don`t enjoy the freedoms our parents enjoyed. The corporados operate best when we`re in the dark. They`re like lawyers and doctors; they don`t want us to understand anything. But democracy is predicated on the understanding of the people. When you have a government run by people who are in the pockets of the kleptocrats, the last thing that government wants is for you to understand how anything works.
But all is not lost. It`s easier to launch a web site and start showing forensically how a kleptocracy picks everybody`s pockets than it was for I.F. Stone to publish his weekly newsletter exposing the bad guys. Much easier. But making a decent living doing it isn`t any easier. So here`s my challenge to you students: think about studying forensic accounting as it might be applied to journalism, and then think about how you might be able to make a living if you`re not going to be employed by Rupert Murdoch doing it, because I guarantee you that Rupert Murdoch will not employ you to do it. Do you have the mind for it? The stomach for it? I sure hope so, because the fate of our republic depends on you, and you can bank on that.
This is Hot Copy, and I`m Del Marbrook. If you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.