How Many Corporate Crimes of the Century Can There Be, Anyway?

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One recurring theme around these parts is the danger of criminalizing business failure and the role of the media in over-hyping so-called corporate scandals. Executive pay is probably the prototypical media manufactured scandal, and many in the business press have been trying their best to make the backdating story look like into an especially egregious form of abusive executive pay. But it happens with private equity takeovers that get management cooperation, hedge fund collapses and allegations of dirty-deeds by specialists and brokerages. Then there are the much-hyped stories of insider trading, hedge fund scammers and fraudulent financial officers. Underlying all this is some sort of morality tale playing out in the minds of many reporters and editors—where the rich are greedy, greed is a sin, and eventually the sinful are revealed and punished. Sometimes it seems like some of these journalists believe it's all crime, all the time in corporate America. Most especially on Wall Street.
We're hardly an exception. To tell the truth, we can't resist the pull of a particularly good bad insider trading scam. And we're fascinated by these characters who start up "hedge funds" that are clearly (at least to those of use with the benefit of hindsight) vehicles for parting the gullible from their savings. But we offer two defenses—one dirty and ironic; the other more earnest and wholesome—for our own conduct. First up, the dirty excuse—we're an online tabloid covering finance. A scandal sheet, if you will. We're in the business of making fun of things and digging up dirt. Second, the cleaner excuse—we do our best to distinguish between genuine scandals and pseudo-scandals, between the misleading and the malicious, between the culpable and the criminal. In short, not ever corporate misdeed is a crime, and not every, uhm, mis-doer is a criminal.
And there are some folks in the business press who get it right. We think Charlie Gasparino does a great job with his reporting. Holman Jenkins is amazing. Andrew Sorkin does a good job over in his corner of the New York Times website. Gary Weiss is like the Batman of genuine corporate crime, except that he's real. Herb Greenberg is good enough to make the right enemies. But we're not naming names of the guilty or the great here. Our point is merely that there are capable, even excellent, reporters writing about business today. But the exceptional are all too often exactly that: exceptions.
So what's everyone else's excuse? There was a time where the business pages were a place you put reporters who were too drunk to be trusted with the obituaries. But that's not true anymore. These folks are professionals. Why is so much of the business media in the business of criminal scare stories these days? Why does there seem to be so little space between the stories glorifying corporate heroics and those decrying the latest Crime of the Century. Why do so many business stories seem pressed into the alternate models of boot-polishing or much-raking? Well, today we came upon a little item that seemed to shed some light on this phenomenon. Basically, crime sells, and journalism is a business like any other and that means it's got to sell stuff.
Here's the opening paragraph of an abstract of the paper by Sara Sun Beale on "The News Media's Influence on Criminal Justice Policy: How Market-Driven News Promotes Punitiveness."

This Article argues that commercial pressures are determining the news media's contemporary treatment of crime and violence, and that the resulting coverage has played a major role in reshaping public opinion, and ultimately, criminal justice policy. The news media are not mirrors, simply reflecting events in society. Rather, media content is shaped by economic and marketing considerations that frequently override traditional journalistic criteria for newsworthiness. This Article explores local and national television's treatment of crime, where the extent and style of news stories about crime are being adjusted to meet perceived viewer demand and advertising strategies, which frequently emphasize particular demographic groups with a taste for violence. Newspapers also reflect a market-driven reshaping of style and content, resulting in a continuing emphasis on crime stories as a cost-effective means to grab readers' attention. This has all occurred despite more than a decade of sharply falling crime rates.

She's talking about more than business news but it seems pretty clear to us that a lot of her argument can easily be applied to our little corner of the world. It's a good cautionary paper for journalists who may think they've uncovered the latest, greatest corporate scandal ever and have their eyes on those Pulitzer prizes.
We're not promising to be any more responsible than we already are. And hopefully we won't get too much more irresponsible. There's always room for a good scandal story. But we are glad that we're not alone in finding some of this criminalization of business business a bit out of whack with reality. Our slogan when we started this thing was simple: "Greed is good entertaining." We still like that much better than the operating morality of too much of the business press—that greed is criminal.
We apologize right now for getting all preachy and righteous on you. We promise we're done with the lessons for the day. Now it's back to making fun of things. And drinkng whiskey. That's what Friday afternoon is for, right?

The media and criminal justice
[Ideoblog]

The News Media's Influence on Criminal Justice Policy: How Market-Driven News Promotes Punitiveness
[Social Science Research Network]

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