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How Did We Miss the Signs of An Impending Crisis?

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Danny Schechter
Message Danny Schechter
That question is back. Again? It was asked about 911 in connection with our government ignoring warning after warning about likely terrorist attacks. The CIA has just raised it again about their own ostrich like behavior in the run-up to the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Now its being asked by the New York Times about the failure to anticipate and potentially pre-empt the Sub-prime mortgage crisis which has since escalated into a deeper meltdown in global financial markets leading to lay-off and predictions of a fall-off in economic growth.

More insidiously, this is an ongoing crisis not just confined to markets. It is expected that, once adjustable rate mortgages are "reset"- upwards, two million more families face the foreclosure of their homes. Their economic pain is being recognized but too late to prevent a vast displacement of people who cannot afford to live in homes they were suckered in to purchasing with the promise of practically free money.

Did this "just happen,"- appearing one morning out of blue skies like a hurricane moving from category 4 to category 5? Of course not! The signs were there for all who wanted to see them, and warnings were plentiful even as they were ignored.

Many in the markets were too

It's odd how the front page of its widely-read Sunday edition, the one ""time newspaper of record could splash a story on how the media and the markets looked the other way as massive deals were being financed by securities cobbled together from sub-prime loans backed with no assets. Why were the signs missed, asked the Times?

Unlike the CIA, the Times did not assess its own reporting and its role in all this.

A few days later the newspaper's business columnist showed that, in fact, many did know and tried to raise the alarm. It seems to be an example of the front pages not knowing what the business pages had reported.

He reminded readers that Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank who just pumped billions of dollars in the markets to keep them liquid and then followed up with a cut in the discount rate, was asked about these issues two years earlier:

"It came in November 2005, toward the end of his all-day Senate confirmation hearing, when Senator Paul Sarbanes brought up the mortgage business. "-Mr. Sarbanes, the ranking Democrat on the Banking Committee then, pointed out that the number of people taking out adjustable-rate mortgages soared in 2004. "Are you concerned about the potential for a bubble in the housing market?"- the senator asked Mr. Bernanke. "And specifically, does the drastic increase in the use of risky financing schemes, including interest-only and even negative amortization mortgages, concern you?"-

Mr. Bernanke replied that the Fed was reviewing its guidelines for these loans and planned to issue new ones soon. The guidelines, he added, "would have on the margin some beneficial effects in reducing speculative activity in some local markets."- At no point, though, did Mr. Bernanke suggest that he was concerned.

And what about the larger media? Where was their concern? Back in the spring of 2006 I published an article in Nieman Reports, the journalism review published at Harvard and read by top editors. I specifically lambasted the lack of reporting on the issue. It was titled "Investigating the Nation's Exploding Credit Squeeze."-

Its thesis: "-Questions of by whom and for whom need more and better investigation, as well as a look at who are the losers and who are the winners.'

The response: tepid.

I then followed up by organizing a Media For Democracy online-email campaign (Media For Democracy is an advocacy effort tied to Mediachannel.org, the media issues website I edit.)

Media For Democracy members sent tens of thousand of requests to media outlets urging that the issue be given more coverage. This was well before the market meltdown. The appeal read in part: "

"We are dismayed by the superficial reporting we have seen on the debt crisis in America. The press has been asleep at the switch in reporting on this story, often showing more compassion for wealthy businessmen than abused consumers.

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News Dissector Danny Schechter is blogger in chief at Mediachannel.Org He is the author of PLUNDER: Investigating Our Economic Calamity (Cosimo Books) available at Amazon.com. See Newsdisssector.org/store.htm.
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