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Reforming Financial Journalism In An Era Of Geopolitical Flux – OpEd

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By Andre Ishii

Last year on several occasions Ray Dalio, investor-philanthropist and co-founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associatesissued multiple warnings concerning the pulse of the US and Western financial environment.

The cautionary call by the celebrated financier – and now the finance coach for the hip-hop king Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs –  spanned the entirety of 2019, ringing sirens concerning political-social consequences of excessive wealth inequality, sky high-levels of public and private debt, and the central banks’ inability to implement sustainably effective policies in reigning in the mounting monetary stress that has been accumulating since the 2008 Great Recession. In his LinkedIn piece published in August, Dalio observes certain parallels between the factors that triggered the Great Depression nearly a century ago with circumstances seen today, as well as the protracted trade war between Washington DC and Beijing potentially escalating into full-fledged capital war.

It is needless to point out that such warning, introspection, and call for action to mitigate possible impending crisis (or worse, chain of crises) is nothing new among investors. It is also standard part-and-parcel practice of geopolitical intelligence and risk management fields, to collect, assess and disseminate to clients (a process known as intelligence cycle) possible situations on the horizon and articulate possible tactics to avert potential losses and if possible, maximize opportunities.

Despite some smaller independent media outlets and financial advisory platforms also having pointed out several negative trends in the area of finance and economy, this type of sustained warnings issued by Dalio are still rather conspicuously absent in conventional mainstream media.  This is not without a reason and has been a long-term, decades-spanning trend within the realm of financial journalism, according to conclusion of a research produced in 2017.

An analysis published by Journalism Studies, written by researchers Sophie Knowles, Gail Phillips, and Johan Lidberg, highlights this increasingly concerning knowledge chasm between the public – by this I include private non-financial sectors – and the financial investment sector, primarily centered in Wall Street and the City of London. The report entitled “Reporting the Global Financial Crisis: A longitudinal tri-nation study of mainstream financial journalism” highlights their general findings resulting from reviewing literature spanning 1,207 articles from the US, UK, and Australia concerning journalistic trends surrounding the early 1990s recession, dot-com bubble, and the 2008 Great Recession.  Their findings are as follows:

  • Financial journalism, due to its own structural and commercial pressures, has increasingly lost the drive and ability to report and critique the financial sector, reducing its role progressively to that of a “mouth-piece” of high finance.
  • Financial journalism has increasingly espoused the ideology of neoliberal financialization – which advocates for extreme financial deregulation and the abolishment of national borders as capital mobility is concerned – thus abandoning ideological neutrality.
  • This structural and ideological alignment between the financial sector and mainstream financial journalism has diminished the capacity of the latter to function independently from the former.
  • The current decline in media profits, resulting in slashing budgets and staff, in turn has degraded the quality of investigative works of journalism central to healthy dissemination of the state of finance to the general public.
  • Meanwhile, more specific key findings related to the three major recessions of the post-Cold War era are as follows:
  • “Overall, there is a discernible pattern over the three decades of decreasing levels of forewarning and coverage on the topics and issues that are most pertinent for ensuing financial bust.” (p.329)
  • Pool of sources has been becoming increasingly circumscribed, progressively consisting mostly of elite insiders in financial sectors (businesses, analysts, and public relations spokespersons).
  • After the 2008 Great Recession got rolling, the topic of interest was soon concentrated on bailouts and regulations, thus systematically preventing wider and deeper discussion of fundamental issues surrounding neoliberal financialization policies driven by key financial centers, and sidelining discussions regarding jobs and personal finance for non-financial sectors of the general public.

The authors summarize that all this “must have serious ramification for the public, which uses mainstream media for its financial information, and larger implications for democracy and the shaping of economic policy.”

The report concludes recognizing that “there is much that could be done to improve the quality of mainstream reportage to ensure it meets a widening audience’s needs.  The results suggest the need for media outlets to invest time and appropriate training in order to give their journalists the confidence to hold their sources to account, to provide independent analysis, into corporate misdeeds, and to monitor changes in the financial industry.”

The work of reforming financial journalism – an endeavor deemed necessary by journalists themselves according to these authors – in order to return financial journalism to the aim of serving the wider public should not merely be left entirely to the journalism industry itself.  This is not because there may be institutional impediments to self-reform, but because open journalism is a societal common good, and there are specialist resources external to the journalism field that may help achieve this end.  It is also in the interest of geopolitical intelligence and risk analysis sector to participate if possible in the reform process.

Private intelligence firms often use open-sources (OSINT) alongside other methods of intelligence collection for assessment. Accurate information disseminated in the media is a vital component for decision making for private sectors outside of the financial sector, as well as consumers and the public in general. (Authors stress that specialist publications are better suited to serve the needs of the latter).

One area the field of geopolitical intelligence may potentially contribute is to help cultivate integrated analytical mindsets among the financial journalists, possibly helping to fill gaps in understanding of the often underappreciated relationship between finance and geopolitics. Politics is often inseparable from geographic environment, while finance is the blood flowing in the arteries of economy. And of course, economy and politics are in turn symbiotic.  Indeed, that modern financial system has been consistently intertwined with geopolitics can be glimpsed from following examples:

The Bank of England – the prototype of the central banks across the world today – was founded in 1694 by the English government to help finance war against France, and later fueling industrial revolution and propelling Britain into a status of global power, thus representing a major turning point for the modern financial system in geopolitical context.

Contrary to its characterization as ‘anti-state’, financialized neoliberalism – an ideology which its excesses have been criticized by Dalio himself – has its origins in inter-state agreements enacted by political authorities.  Quinn Slobodian, associate professor of history at Wellesley College, demonstrates that geopolitically strategic thinking was present in the minds of the original architects of the ideology, who urged using instruments of interstate organizations to seal off economies and trade from influence of the sovereign states reflecting the needs of general citizenry.

Likewise, Eric Helleiner, political scientist at University of Waterloo and specialist in financial globalization, has written extensively on the active role of the state in creating territorial currencies – the life-blood of modern finance – and essential role of the state-backed institutions in creating and sustaining modern globalization. Helleiner notes emphatically that despite assertions to the contrary, the “globalization of finance has strengthened US power rather than undermined it” via structural power erected by political policies, and that “globalization of finance was not an unstoppable or inevitable force, but rather one authored by states.”

Lately it has been in the vogue to talk about the ‘return of geopolitics’ yet it is not even clear if it really ever left the global stage.  Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a seismic shift occurring characterized by great power politics and financial aspects of it moving to the fore.

Now the third decade into the 21st century, many of our institutions are seen to be broken, and the establishment media is of no exception: ineffective in conveying relevant information to the general public, while myopically serving parochial interests of select sectors of the society. In 1939, British analyst E.H. Carr noted that the opinion-making institutions rank as one of the triads of power along with the political and the economic, and warned that in the democratic states media are trending towards centralized control (The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939 p.135).  This prognostication has been especially on-target in this century, in tandem with the rise of media outlets owned by the Big Tech.  As noted by David Brooks of The New York Times in his recent piece, diversity of ideas is desperately needed.  This is especially true for the area of financial journalism, as demonstrated by the aforementioned study on the media’s lack of diversity on financial perspectives. In this era of geopolitical convulsions and opportunities afforded by them (or what risk analyst Milena Rodban calls ‘geopolitical flux’), the field of geopolitical intelligence possesses important paradigms and resources to help journalists contextualize events and information. Collaborative efforts (workshops, seminars, classes etc.) to help finance journalists get up to speed on geopolitical paradigms, may turn out to be a small but yet a significant step toward a reformed media that is necessary in this increasingly chaotic period of history in which we find ourselves.

The views expressed in this article belongs to the author alone and does not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated with or Geopoliticalmonitor.com.

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