In these doom-laden days of Wall St capitulation and Main St confusion, citizens are beating a path to the business media. Financial dailies and news websites have boosted their output as punters scramble to have their curiosity sated by reams of red ink and shots of crestfallen brokers. There’s nothing like a meltdown to focus the mind.

Most punters logically assume the financial wing of the fourth estate retains a sliver of credibility. And it’s true that aside from denialist wingnuts blaming “regulation” for the meltdown, most serious commentators back some kind of sustained intervention. A few are hailing a new Keynesianism, others a return to a global pact negotiated by the G20. Even the Wall Street Journal has been making noises in the direction of a new Bretton Woods.

But surely this new found faith in government is just a temporary affliction — if history’s any guide, financial journalists, with very few exceptions, will ultimately back the failed ideology that dishes up their monthly pay cheque.

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Glaring examples abound — every weekday morning for what seems like forever, Squawk Box “on-air Editor” Charlie Gasparino appears phoenix-like on CNBC to regurgitate his ridiculous regulatory bugbears (by night he files op-eds for the New York Post blaming the coming Obama Administration for the Street’s failings). All it takes is the vaguest sniff of a Dow rebound to send Gasparino, and Squawk’s neoliberal cheer squad, into a feeding frenzy. Like jilted partners dragged to their ex’s wedding, CNBC’s finest are champing at the bit to escape the reality that’s staring them in the face.

That unashamed boosterism dominates financial news is hardly revelatory — but it highlights the in-built barriers for journalists struggling to comprehend the system’s deficiencies. Laissez faire’s broken logic, brutally exposed by the credit crunch, means well-meaning hacks are pulling on a piece of string, just like Paulson’s bailout. The system’s dark heart is never exposed, such is the overwhelming desire to leave the status-quo unquestioned in the mad scramble for the next story. The failure of business journalists to expose the madness of subprime and credit default swaps has been likened to that other big fourth estate stuff up — the failure to question the Bush Administration in the lead up to the Iraq war.

But it’s not really the rusted-on ideologues we should be worried about. It’s the reams of staid wire copy that deluges business newsdesks every few minutes, with no end in sight. The rise of Nick Davies’ churnalism is most prolific in the re-hashed “stories” that poison the pages of every single business daily. Here, company press releases spruiking profit results are faithfully reproduced with the preferred PR angle intact. For wire journalists, the need to produce “real-time copy” means there’s no practical alternative to toeing the company line.

There are of course many examples of pre-meltdown triumphs. Bethany McLean’s 2001 Forbes story, titled simply “Is Enron Overvalued”, started the rot that brought down a behemoth — the whole US regulatory system was called into question as a result. Mining giant BHP’s poisonous operations in Papua New Guinea were exposed by some persistent Four Corners hacks. Some business journalists cultivate a cosy relationship with their sources and give shareholder activists invaluable insights into the internal working of firms. And of course, Paul Krugman thoroughly deserves his Nobel Prize for economics owed partly to his penetrating insights in the New York Times and earlier, Slate.

But it’s times like these that call for a wholesale shake out — one lesson from the meltdown has been the utter embeddedness of neoliberal logic in the global market of economic ideas. Slowly, progressives are again starting to envision alternative arrangements, but business journalists need to start digging in earnest to provide them with some clues.

With an eye on the citizens they’re meant to be serving, the financial wing of the fourth estate could be leading the way. Instead we’re stuck with die hard fans of an earlier era, supporting a mid-table franchise on an irreversible losing streak.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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