Who's More to Blame: Wall Street or the Media?

Join the Fool as we assess blame for this financial meltdown -- March Madness bracket style! Below is one of two semifinal matchups you can vote on … enjoy!    

The case for Wall Street, by Morgan Housel
Blame the media over Wall Street? I understand the frustration, but let's get a few points straight.

I'm a huge fan of Jon Stewart's f-bomb-fueled lashing of Jim Cramer and CNBC, but some examples Stewart used -- like Cramer bragging about the joy of spreading rumors about Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) stock -- are hardly ordinary. Jim Cramer isn't your typical media reporter. Come to think of it, he isn't a typical anything.

The majority of the media reported the facts as it received them in a professional manner. Even if it was biased (and a lot of it was), poor reporting doesn't make you guilty; it makes you untrustworthy. There's no crime in having an opinion, even if it turns out to be disastrously wrong.   

Besides, who says some well-regarded members of the media didn't warn us about this entire mess years ago? As New York Times (NYSE: NYT  ) columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman recently noted, "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. But failing to complain over the last eight years wasn't one of them." Some readers of Fool.com will remember my colleague Seth Jayson warning in early 2007 of "the myth of housing as an investment, rather than a sound living choice if purchased at the right price." And who can forget Peter Schiff on CNBC and Fox News from 2006 through 2007, warning that the financial system was a nuclear bomb about to explode?

Plenty of members of the media were sounding the alarm well before the tide went out -- many of us just failed to listen. 

The disaster that spawned the bailout of Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) , Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , and AIG (NYSE: AIG  ) was not caused by media cheerleaders. It was caused by infectious greed, a broken compensation system, and lax regulation that swept over a financial industry hell-bent on doing everything to keep the party going as long as possible.  

The case for the media, by Tim Beyers
You really don't like the media, do you? At the very least, you think they're more to blame for this crisis than are Adam Smith or Bernie Madoff. Look at these margins of victory:

Can this Cinderella keep dancing? I don't see how. Even if you think that CNBC's Jim Cramer and his peers failed to watch Wall Street's dogs while they were stealing extra kibble, it's the kibble kleptomaniacs who really deserve your ire. (Say that three times fast.)

And yet the public outrage over the media's failure to report on the Street's excesses is so virulent that the namesake newspapers of New York Times Co. and Washington Post (NYSE: WPO  ) have once again announced steep cost-cutting measures. E.W. Scripps (NYSE: SSP  ) recently retired The Rocky Mountain News after close to 150 years of reporting the news in Colorado.

This story gets sadder by the day.

Wall Street, on the other hand, deserves zero sympathy. Who in their right mind would cry for morons who'd bet on credit default swaps on U.S. government bonds, an investment that's virtually guaranteed never to pay out?

You know who created these and other credit derivatives. They're the unemployed geniuses who once occupied opulent offices at Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch.

If you must blame the media, blame it for irrational optimism, or complicity. Wall Street has been home to malfeasance for more than a century now. We've survived the ensuing panics -- no thanks to the financiers or the media, but rather because of the survival instincts of our forebears. Every member of the media knows this. They know, too, that there's no reasonable explanation for having ignored this latest crisis as it was developing. Those who did speak up were late in doing so.

That's detestable, and deserving of at least a portion of the blame for this mess that we're in.

Vote now!
Now it's your turn. Who do you think is more responsible for the mortgage mess: the Wall Street wizards, or the finger-pointing and feckless media? Make your pick below.

Check out the Fool’s entire 2009 March Madness bracket here.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn’t own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Fool contributor Tim Beyers owns shares in Apple. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (13)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2009, at 11:18 AM, none0such wrote:

    Tim,

    "You know who created these and other credit derivatives. They're the unemployed geniuses who once occupied opulent offices at Bear Stearns, ..."

    Right, but more specifically, and to our country's detriment, it was the bright young minds who would have become much needed mathematicians, engineers, etc. only to be lured after graduation into the financial business sector by easy money to facilitate this tragedy. What a waste of a talented human resource. You can christen this "the lost generation" in addition to "the lost decade" we are embarked on.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2009, at 12:32 PM, jngermano wrote:

    the media are just a bunch of wimps beholden to the wall street advertisers they only care about keeping their jobs. The talking heads on cnn cnbc fox etc. are there only for the ratings they stir up what they can but NOT for the public good, for ratings

    I was an institutional bond trader for 25 years and couldn't understand what backed half of the stuff that crossed my desk. all the institutions wanted was yield yield yield so they bought the stuff. S&P Moody' Fitch all rated this stuff. They aren't being looked at closely enough in my estimation and should be taking a lot of the rap.

    We do need stronger regulations but nobody on the street is afraid of the ones we have somebody needs so TEETH.

    Mark this 2 years after this mess is over the Media the rating agencies motley fool will nestle back into their comfort zones. My painter godfather used to say "MONEY IS LIKE PAINT I COVERS UP A MULTITUDE OF SINS"

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2009, at 12:43 PM, drewsands wrote:

    Until some investment broker or advisor gets murdered (God Forbid) Not much will happen. I have to go back to work and stamp AAA ratings for Moody's on investments I do not know 100%. Or I will get fired.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2009, at 4:49 PM, Melaschasm wrote:

    Yes it is Maddof and the financial industry that behaved badly and should be blamed for the fraudulent behavoir.

    However, the media was also asleep at the wheel. No one expects companies to be honest about what they are doing, when they are doing bad things. However, was an expectation that the media would be a watchdog, and bring to light the shady business practices of Wall Street. The media was so going to the same parties as the rich and powerful on Wall Street that they were to busy to do their job.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2009, at 4:54 PM, Melaschasm wrote:

    There are a few words missing in my post above. I have made the corrections below.

    Yes it is Maddoff and the financial industry that behaved badly and should be blamed for the fraudulent behavoir.

    However, the media was also asleep at the wheel. No one expects companies to be honest about what they are doing, when they are doing bad things. However, there was an expectation that the media would be a watchdog, and bring to light the shady business practices of Wall Street. The media was so busy going to the same parties as the rich and powerful on Wall Street that they were to busy to do their job.

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