21st Century Journalism XXIX: Michael Lewis on the Financial CrisisOn November 11, Portfolio published an account of the current Wall Street meltdown by Michael Lewis.
Lewis first came to attention as the author of Liar's Poker, his 1989 memoir of his four-year career in the mid-'80s as a twenty-something bond trader at Salomon Brothers. As Lewis explains in the opening paragraphs of his Portfolio article,
To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.What distinguishes this piece of journalism is not only the vividness and detail of the story it tells, but also, in more general terms, its model execution of the journalist's job. As an example of long-form journalism, the Lewis piece exhibits a number of essential principles, among them steady authorial concern for good sourcing, clarity, and coherent flow.
I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. ...
Unless some insider got all of this down on paper, I figured, no future human would believe that it happened.
I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind.
I am firmly of the opinion that the news organizations that survive into the future (I am not talking about more feature-oriented publications, such as People) will make quality assurance a central value for their writers and editors. And they will invest the resources their staff need in order to meet high quality standards.