Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bloomberg with a curious headline on Madoff

When I checked at 10:50 this morning, this was the headline in big, bold letters:


Bernard Madoff admitted he was the mastermind behind the largest Ponzi scheme ever, an historic fraud that swindled investors out of as much as $65 billion and made him the symbol of investor distrust in a global recession.

My problem is with that last part. Does Bloomberg know that Madoff is 'the symbol of investor distrust'? No way. Bloomberg can't possibly know that Madoff matters as a meaningful 'symbol' of trust and distrust: present conditions have the general beliefs of investors (not to mention of the public more broadly) up in the air. We can speculate, but the events are so fresh and old understandings are so quickly getting undermined by experience that to claim to know what people are thinking in relation to this financial collapse is at best misleading.

There is another reason we should avoid wild announcements. The question of generalized trust is no small issue. If Madoff is a significant symbol, then his pleading guilty and going to jail could lead to some improvement in public trust of economic institutions. In this account, in the end the right guy(s) get caught, so the credibility of the system can be restored without having to undergo major overhaul. This amounts to a best-case scenario. But if in the minds of people Madoff's only a face in a larger systemic story, then the reconstruction of economic credibility might require more deeply-felt, structural changes. A lot of power and control, and wealth, is on the line as we construct what will come to symbolize the things we think we know.

In any case, for whatever reason, Bloomberg steps over the line of credible journalism here. There is no way the people there know what this headline says they know. The reconstruction of economic thought is only begun.

My suggestion for Bloomberg? Hire a sociologist steeped in social theory to study the question of investor sentiment using methods geared for the needs of every-day journalism. Then they'll have a firmer basis to make claims about the general beliefs of people.


At around 11:20 the headline appears slightly changed:


Bernard Madoff was jailed after admitting he masterminded the largest Ponzi scheme in history, an epic swindle that may have reached $65 billion and made him the symbol of investor distrust in a global recession.

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