Like Top 10 lists and year-end retrospectives, anniversary stories are a convention of journalism that just won't go away. So last week we were forced to endure an avalanche of coverage dedicated to re-enacting, re-analyzing, re-reporting, but mostly, regurgitating the fall of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. one year after the fact. The media has deemed Lehman's failure to be the official start of the financial crisis, despite the cataclysmic events that preceded it, including not only the implosion of Bear Stearns Cos., but the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac just a week earlier. Funny how there were no anniversary stories commemorating that landmark event.
With a few exceptions, the Lehman coverage consisted of the usual anniversary fare, from the pedestrian where-are-they-now stories to the handwringing what-have-we-learned pieces. (Answer: Not much.) The New York Times gave over a chunk of its op-ed page to former Lehmanites weighing in on the firm's last days -- "I was robbed first by Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Chairman, and Henry Paulson, the former Treasury secretary," whined one embittered Lehman employee -- while CNN boasted of landing an interview with Alan Schwartz, the last Bear CEO. It seems any fallen Wall Street bigwig will do.
Lehman's Dick Fuld, however, remained largely out of view, except on Reuters, where reporter Clare Baldwin staked out his vacation home in Ketchum, Idaho. "Dick Fuld gave me a hug," began Baldwin's account of meeting the ex-Lehman chief, who told her that for legal reasons, he couldn't talk about the events of last Sept. 15.
Too bad. At least that would have been something new. As Slate's Jack Shafer complained about Sept. 11 anniversary stories: "In its most naked form, the anniversary article makes no attempt to advance the story or deepen the collective understanding of the selected anniversary event."
In the case of Lehman's anniversary, we'll lodge another complaint: Many of the pieces were authored by journalists who have written or are writing books on the financial crisis. Are their pieces simply promos for their books? Or are their books just longer versions of their anniversary pieces? Where does the marketing end and the journalism begin?
There was David Wessel, author of In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic on the front page of the Wall Street Journal last Monday arguing that the Fed deserves credit for preventing catastrophe last fall. Want more? Buy the book. At the Times, Joe Nocera, who is working on a crisis book with Bethany McLean, posited that Lehman's death provided the political will needed to save the economy at large. Nocera also starred in a video on the Times' Web site retelling the story of Lehman's collapse, as if we had all just landed from Mars and needed to be filled in. His co-stars: Gretchen Morgenson and Andrew Ross Sorkin, whose own crisis book is scheduled for release next month.
Newsweek, meanwhile, commemorated Lehman's failure by excerpting an upcoming book on J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon by Duff McDonald, who profiled Dimon for New York magazine after the Bear deal. And then there's Lawrence McDonald, the former Lehman vice president who penned an "insider account" of the firm's fall. He showed up on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer to once again blame it all on Fuld and his private elevator.
Needing to get away from all this, we happily retreated into James B. Stewart's epic anniversary piece in The New Yorker, "Eight Days: The battle to save the American financial system." (Good thing Roger Lowenstein changed his upcoming crisis book from Six Days That Shook the World to The End of Wall Street.) Stewart interviewed everyone from Bernanke to Timothy Geithner to Paulson to provide a clinical, behind-the-scenes account of what happened the week Lehman died. He tells his readers off the bat that "memories inevitably have been colored by hindsight and efforts to shade the truth, to affix blame and claim credit," but his narrative is both highly credible and highly readable.
Finishing the piece, you can't help but wonder what's left for all those upcoming books to say -- a feeling that only deepens when you realize that some of those nearly-instant tomes were completed in about the same amount of time that it took Stewart to craft a 20,000-word magazine story. We suppose the books can offer insight or perspective that we haven't heard before, but we're not hopeful. After all, we're already sick of hearing about Fuld's damn elevator.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.