The Watchdog That Didn't Bark

The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism

The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism

In this sweeping, incisive study, Dean Starkman exposes the critical shortcomings that softened coverage during the mortgage era and the years leading up to the financial collapse of 2008. He locates the roots of the problem in business news’s origin as a market messaging service geared toward investors in the early twentieth century. This access-dependent strain of journalism was opposed by the grand, sweeping work of the muckrakers. Propelled by the innovations of Bernard Kilgore, the great postwar editor of the Wall Street Journal, these two genres merged when mainstream American news organizations institutionalized muckraking in the 1960s, creating a powerful guardian of the public interest. Yet as the mortgage era dawned, deep cultural and structural shifts—some unavoidable, some self-inflicted—eroded journalism’s appetite for its role as watchdog. The result was a deafening silence about systemic financial industry corruption that, tragically, grew more profound even as the mortgage madness reached its terrible apogee from 2004 through 2006.

Starkman frames his analysis in a broad argument about journalism itself, dividing the profession into two competing approaches—access reporting and accountability reporting—which rely on entirely different sources and produce radically different representations of reality. As Starkman explains, access journalism came to dominate business reporting in the 1990s, a process he calls “CNBCization,” and rather than examine risky, even corrupt, corporate behavior, mainstream reporters focused on profiling executives and informing investors. Starkman concludes with a critique of digital-news ideology and corporate influence, which threaten to further undermine investigative reporting, and he shows how financial coverage, and journalism as a whole, can reclaim its bite.

Here is the missing piece in the financial-crisis mystery: how did our vaunted business-journalism sector manage to miss the problem with mortgage-backed investments? The answer, as Starkman shows us in this amazing autopsy, is that the business outweighs the journalism and that it is getting worse, not better, as we go forward.”Thomas Frank, author of Pity The Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right

Read Starkman's powerful and disturbing analysis of how business journalism came to write for an audience of investors, not citizens. You may not share his every judgment, but this account has the advantage of being both true and fascinating.Michael Schudson, Columbia University

Starkman is literally a reporter's reporter. As such, he gets to the bottom of the story of how the U.S. business press could miss the most important economic implosion of the past eighty years until it was too late, and he does so with prose that is intelligent, engaging, and erudite. I recommend The Watchdog without reservation.”Eric Alterman, Brooklyn College, and media columnist, The Nation

“Journalism was complicit in the predation and corruption that brought down world financial markets and wrecked the lives of millions. Obsessed with shallow scoops, giddy from the laughing gas of access, financial journalists abjectly failed to connect dots and left abusive, reckless, and criminal corporations free to drag the global economy into the abyss. Dean Starkman is the author we have been waiting for to tell this story. He not only puts forward a keen, subtle, and fair account of the journalistic default, he names names.”Todd Gitlin, Columbia University

With American journalism at sea, here comes a navigator who really knows its mission, the riptides it is facing, and the ports it must reach. Starkman tells it all with the heart, clarity, and dry wit that redeem business journalism even while showing how it lost its anchor and compass.” Jim Sleeper, former editor and columnist at Newsday and the New York Daily News

The Watchdog that Didn't Bark, given its in-depth analysis across the landscape, steeped in history, and Starkman's keen understanding of the business of journalism, can stand as a potentially enduring case study of what went wrong and why.” Alec Klein, director of The Medill Justice Project and award-winning investigative reporter formerly with The Washington Post