Saturday night I went to see The Inside Job, upon the recommendation of my economics professor. "It makes us look pretty, pretty bad," she said. I didn't realize that depth of how bad it made "us" look, us meaning Columbia University, whose business school dean, Glenn Hubbard, gets so ruffled on being asked uncomfortable questions about the deep layers of conflicted interest that criss-cross the finance network (business and econ deans/consultants to finance companies/political advisees or appointess/finance board members) that he says, "You have three more minutes. Give it your best shot."
And believe me, the director Charles Ferguson does just that. It's a seering account of the incredible, glib way in which the nation's finance sector operates, and how the "too big to fail" institutions have both the country and the world by the balls. One thing particularly interesting (if not shocking) was the total lack of diversity on screen—at one point, and interviewee takes pains to say "and believe me, this is a man's game." I was happy to see that Ferguson treats the sex workers associated with the finance sector with respect, interviewing Kristin Davis, (dubbed 'the Manhattan madam'), about the ways in which finance men billed corporate accounting for services, careful to locate the unethical behavior in the billing and cases of infidelity, rather than the act itself. Related to this was Eliot Spitzer, of course, talking about how sex scandals could bring down the whole financial industry, but there's "gentlemen's agreement" not to use such information... to which he laughs and gives the thousand yard stare. It all mounts into a portrait of an industry run on lies, corruption, and illegality in all layers, from drug use to prostitution to bribery, to systematically falsifying credit ratings to betting against one's own clients - all of it existing on a plain of greed and ego.
The same day I went to the New Museum to check out The Last Newspaper, an exhibit on the historical and contemporary meaning of that beloved anacronism. Mostly because I heard from Jace Clayton that each week a different section of a traditional newspaper will be created in house—he's doing the music section. On the train home I finished re-reading Free Culture (anticipating the dip into diss writing pool) and just had a deeply cynical laugh about the idea of the RIAA sueing fans throughout the 2000s for trading music, taking the life savings of teenagers, while bankers stole hundreds of billions of dollars, and not one has been seriously punished. Mostly just thought about the scale of the finance industry against such terribly tangible industries as newsprint, about the death of making "things" and the era of making "ideas" or, in the case of the finance industry, "dreams" (as the film says) or "speculation" or "risk" or...lies. And how, as we move away from things to ideas/dreams/risk, fewer and fewer people participate in the work, and fewer profit.
One of the conceits of the Last Newspaper exhibit (which is, by no coincidence, above the exhibit called "Free," a hectic jumble of new media, sculpture, and painting on the subject of participatory digital media networks) was that readers are more critical and unconvinced by the authority of mainstream media. And today I just started rereading Convergence Culture, which has a rather fascinating chapter about Survivor "spoiler" fandom and how online communities designate authority. What I came away thinking about the last few days is the shifting credentials for authority, the end of the paper as the place of authority, and the shifting places audiences go to find authority. Charles Ferguson started his own production company because no one was making films about the subjects he cared about, but he's a multi-millionare. The Last Newspaper makes news about China's censorship practices and posts it up on walls in public around New York City, as is the practice in China itself. As an art project, a fleeting engagement. How do we, as citizens, synthesize all these disperate voices, evaluate the credentials, find points of dialog. How do learn how to ask questions that make our dean's squirm, and learn how to be impolite enough to expect them to answer, to really answer, for the mess they made? That was the job of the journalist. Maybe not anymore.