National Press Club

Economic Crisis: Journalists Warned, But Who was Listening?

February 11, 2009 | By Gil Klein

Marvin Kalb (center) led a talk on the "business of business writing" with, from left, Steve Perlstein, Alexis Glick, Diana Henriques, Ali Velshi

Marvin Kalb (center) led a talk on the "business of business writing" with, from left, Steve Perlstein, Alexis Glick, Diana Henriques, Ali Velshi

Photo/Image: Sylvia Smith

Story from Kalb Report

Business and economics reporters warned about the looming economic crisis long before it happened, but the public did not want to hear about it, four leading business journalists told host Marvin Kalb at The Kalb Report int eh NPC Ballroom Monday evening.

The information was out there, said Steve Pearlstein, Washington Post business columnist. But it required people to focus on it. Yet the economy had such momentum that people could not see the danger. The problem is that journalists were compelled to quote someone from the other side – in the finance industry or government – who dismissed the warnings.

Part of the problem was the public’s fixation on the stock market as the indicator of the nation’s health, said Diana Henriques, senior financial writer at the New York Times. The credit markets were melting down in the fall of 2007, but not until the fall of 2008 did the damage hit the stock market. “We can’t force people to read about the bond market,” she said. “But it was covered.”

The story was exceedingly complicated and difficult for even experienced market analysts to understand, said Alexis Glick, vice president for business news at Fox Business. She said she has to review a couple hundred pages of background material every morning. When even members of company board of directors don’t understand what is happening, it is difficult for the average person.

Ali Velshi, CNN’s chief business correspondent, likened financial news to hurricane coverage. Maybe people were talking about it in 2007, he said, but people treated it like a hurricane that was striking somewhere else. It was not your problem. Now the hurricane has come upon us all.

This story is so fast moving, and the amount of information is so huge that it is a challenge for reporters to keep up with it, the panelists said. Losing track for even an hour can be fatal. And the demands of instant analysis are great. “My BlackBerry goes off, and I get a message I don’t understand,” Velshi said. “But I’m expected to go on camera.”

Now every reporter must understand economics and finance because every story is tied to what is happening to the economy. “Those days of standing in the newsroom and saying ‘I just don’t do numbers.’ That’s over,” Henriques said.