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Jewish World Review July 23, 2002 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5762

Andy Rooney

Andy Rooney
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Consumer Reports

Financial reporters have failed | Reporters have never been near the top of any popularity poll for practitioners of various professions. Every time there's any kind of survey, people in the news business score badly. There are at least three reasons:

  • Reporters deal with news. An event is news if it's a change from the usual or the normal. People like things the way they are. It's not a story if the mayor isn't caught stealing, the forest doesn't catch fire, or no one is found murdered. In almost every case, change that makes news is negative and reporters and whole news organizations are associated with that. They are always being asked, "Why don't you ever give us the good news?" The answer is that usually, if it's good, it isn't news.

  • A reporter's work is out in the open for everyone to see or read. There's no hiding place. What other profession has to lay its work out every day where people can review it? Would the work of a banker, an insurance salesman, or a garage mechanic stand up to the kind of scrutiny a reporter's work gets?

  • A reporter's story depends on facts that are difficult to get. People involved in a story would rather say what they'd like to have printed than the truth. Witnesses are more interested in what the story will mean to them when it comes out than in what actually happened. The reporter finds himself or herself checking one lie or distortion against another. People are not only poor observers, but they're also bad at describing what they saw. Their memories of events are influenced by what they wish the events had been.

With what facts he can get, a reporter has to try to write a story in a style that's interesting enough to attract readers. Style is not always compatible with facts.

So much in defense of reporters. There's no way they can defend themselves for the terrible job they've done reporting on Big Business. For years there have been daily features and magazine cover stories on the giants who've taken a company to the top. These have been success stories long on personal history, anecdotes and maybe even a little gossip but short on information about shady or illegal practices a tycoon may have employed to get where he is.

Week after week, television shows devoted to Wall Street have featured guests called "stock analysts." Does anyone ever recall Rukeyser pressing a guest to analyze the fraud that was going on in business? Not once?

Night after night, the network evening news shows dutifully said stocks were up or down (usually up). They never reported that anything in these corporations seemed to be sideways.

It's not just major corporations that have escaped media scrutiny. There must be hundreds of small, local businesses in every city engaging in practices that could command a banner headline.

News organizations need to be more aggressive in business reporting. The average reader doesn't know a stock option from a stock yard, but someone getting paid to report on business ought to have known something fishy was going on in the corporate world on a scale that makes the great bank robber Willie Sutton look like a small-time pickpocket.

If reporters had gone after Big Business the way they covered the forest fire in Arizona or a kidnapping, they would have hounded every high-level employee who got fired, looking for dirt. They would have gotten to insiders on corporate boards. They would have used all the traditional methods of seeking out information and quite possibly saved the country from this financial disaster before it happened.

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© 2002, TMS