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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Tanta's Brush With Reporterage

Over at Calculated Risk Tanta guest-posted about a WaPo article on bad RE loans. I had read the article before I read Tanta's post, and I had the same confusions and questions as Tanta. I also thought the article was worse than useless. It left financially inexpert readers with no idea how to avoid problems with a new mortgage, and it left financially versed readers with no idea about how to help the man who claims he accidentally got an interest-only mortgage. Worse yet, the description of the problem mortgage contradicts itself.

In the comments, numerous readers chimed in with anecdotes about sloppy reporting. Further hilarity ensued when Tanta's long post stimulated one Holden Lewis to arrive to defend the honor of the fair Kirstin (the reporter who wrote the WaPo article). This is worth a read, although neither the post nor the ninety-three comments are a quick read. I'd say Tanta is winning on points.

Holden Lewis (his blog Mortgage Matters):
I don't reject the criticisms of Kirstin's article. I object to the self-righteous tone of the criticism. Sometimes I make mistakes in articles that I write, and sometimes I leave big gaping holes in stories, and it feels terrible when someone slashes me to ribbons over it. From that perspective, I feel sympathy for Kirstin Downey.

Based on this post, I have a hunch that if Tanta were a Red Sox fan, and she ran into Bill Buckner at the grocery store, she would scream invective at him instead of treating him kindly.

I occasionally have worked for people who talk like Tanta. They start out by telling you a long story from the distant past about how stupid a colleague was, then they tell a long, long complaint about how stupid a current colleague is. I think most of us have had to deal with self-aggrandizing bores such as this. That's how Tanta comes off in this post. Most likely this is an unfair characterization. But that was my visceral reaction to Tanta's rant, because for several years I had an editor like that, and I'm sensitive to that sort of person.

Frankly, I think there are more worthy targets -- such as anyone who works for the National Association of Realtors -- than a well-meaning reporter who had a bad day. I met Kirstin Downey last year at an FTC hearing on exotic mortgages -- had lunch with her, in fact -- and I think she understands the subject. I find the holes in this article inexplicable. I don't like to see her demonized, when there are plenty of people out there who are more deserving of vituperation.
Demonized? Either the criticisms are valid or they are not. They are valid. As for why Tanta is angry, it's because it is her job (and her ethical duty) to protect people such as the subject of the original article and the people who invest in those mortgages. It may be a forgotten principle, but you don't make money by lending to borrowers who will then be driven into default - not in the long term.

Tanta, apparently, takes her duties a lot more seriously than the reporter takes the duty of writing informative articles for the public. It's not about self-righteousness - it's about the rights of the public reading the article and whether the subject of this controversy has an easy, simple way to fix his stated problem that will cost him nothing! It's not enough to be incompetent with the best intentions. None of us accept that from a doctor, an engineer, and architect or an auto mechanic, so why should we accept it from a newspaper reporter? The reporter didn't do her job.

Maybe Holden is a sensitive type of guy, but people who get stuck in bad mortgages are dealing with a lot more than hurt feelings, and they need either knowledge or help based on facts. All the "poor you" stuff won't help them a bit.

The Anchoress also writes passionately about good and bad reporting, and that is because she too believes that it is important.

I don't remember seeing *one single article* about the danger of toxic mortgages prior to 2006 (or maybe late 2005) in either the general media or the business media..and I read a lot of stuff. Maybe if someone has been motivated to write about the topic back then, some people could have been spared some pain.

It's unfortunately true that 95% of media types aren't interested in writing in anything unless other media types are already writing about it. Kind of a different slant on product differentiation..
David - EXACTLY!!!
ed in texas

We expect concise, exact data from professionals, generally. The reason reporters and media get away with this is there's no malpractise penalty involved. Hmm...
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