With a presidential election year well upon us, it's pretty clear what a hyperpartisan nation we have become.
It seems everyone is increasingly viewing topics through a lens of Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. Far worse, many now express their opinions in a knee-jerk fashion, one less about the intellectual rigor of an argument but instead merely an attempt to either reinforce their own ideological viewpoint — or attack someone else's.
To be sure, this trend is not exactly new. There have always been partisans on both sides of important issues. But until recently, they have stayed largely free of the financial services arena.
Amazing as it may seem, when I joined American Banker 12 years ago, the banking committees largely operated on a bipartisan basis. Moreover, the tenor and tone of the debate about various topics – including tough issues like subprime lending, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, financial privacy – were far more dispassionate and reasonable than they are today.
Now, you can hardly write or say anything about banking without riling up somebody. The biggest example of this is, of course, the Dodd-Frank Act. While it was clearly controversial when it passed two years ago, if anything, it has become far more divisive since then.
On one side are bankers, and some Republicans, who appear to view Dodd-Frank as the financial Apocalypse that will destroy banks' business model. On the other are consumers and Democratic lawmakers who defend the law as a necessary response to the financial crisis.
For journalists like me, this huge divide is both a blessing and a curse. Let's be honest: our business thrives on conflict and debate. When intelligent people disagree over a significant issue, there's usually a story there. On the other hand – if I can take you behind the scenes for a minute – it has become increasingly difficult to try and talk about these issues.
In an era of partisan media, many people only want to hear an echo of what they already believe. If an article challenges that belief – or worse, provides evidence that it is flawed or incomplete – many readers no longer engage in self-reflection, but instead shoot the messenger. Rather than consider their own views, they claim the article, or the reporter or editor behind it, is biased.
While this has always been a risk for journalism, it has become far more prevalent in the past few years, and particularly true in the past 12 months. Frankly, we can't write anything about Dodd-Frank these days without being accused of taking sides. Sometimes a single article has been attacked by both sides as "proof" of bias. Speaking personally, I have been accused of being an industry lackey and a socialist revolutionary — two ideas that are generally incompatible with each other. Or perhaps I'm the first socialist in history with a pro-bank bias.
Consider these comments, posted on American Banker's website, that perfectly capture what I'm talking about.
After a recent post analyzing the presidential campaign, a banker wrote: "More and more, I find myself wondering just who or what the 'American Banker' publication supports – banking or the big government? You repeatedly post articles that declare the impending death of community banking, the need to give the CFPB a chance and more incredibly inane positions … You are either clearly out of touch with your subscribers, or are trying desperately to nudge them toward a political outcome."
Just two weeks ago, another commenter offered this on an article analyzing Mitt Romney's position on the Dodd-Frank Act: "My interpretation of this commentary is that the American Banker appears to be embracing Dodd-Frank just because it is there and happens to have been created by an administration the editors clearly prefer. Throw out the whole mess and start all over with an administration friendly to the industry."
This is just a small sampling and I don't mean to overstate its importance. But still, it illustrates a trend I find troubling. To the outside world, we are often seen as pro-industry. But to bankers who read us, we are sometimes seen as siding instead with regulators or the administration (a view that, candidly, the administration and regulators would find extremely amusing).
So I would like, then, to lay it all on the table for you. What is American Banker's agenda? What are the goals of our reporters? Since some of our readership has its own ideas, I thought I would like to express my own view. And I should be clear that it is just that—No one person can speak for an entire paper and colleagues may see it differently.
If you want the grandiose way to put it, we are here to further debate and analysis on important issues facing the banking system. American Banker is like a community paper but rather than covering a geographic community, we cover a business community. We look at everything from legislation to proposed rules to trends and people with one question in mind: How does this affect banking? This often means challenging widely held assumptions and talking to all sides to ensure we are giving a complete picture of a particular issue.
If you want the simpler way to put it – the way I generally tell the reporters I've worked with – our job is to call B.S. We see ourselves as a referee on the field trying to ensure the game is played with complete – and accurate – information.
I will be the first to tell you we have not always succeeded. We are human and we make mistakes. I wish – like many others – that we had challenged the industry harder on issues like subprime lending. Were we critical? Yes. But sometimes we gave too much weight to the then-industry position that the industry had it all under control. They didn't and we all paid the price.
Like a lot of other papers, we are also trying to find our way in the new digital world. Sometimes that means we have gone for the cheap fix: Pushing a provocative op-ed out the door because we know that it will attract attention, without regard to whether it will really contribute to debate.
But I'd like to think that is the exception, rather than the rule. As a reporter and editor, I see our job as this: Wade through the debates, try and present both sides, but do so in a way that identifies flaws in arguments and tries to suggest alternative courses of action.
American Banker celebrated its 175th anniversary last year. As we have been in the decades past, the paper is here to provide analysis and debate about the important issues facing the banking system. We are not pro- or anti-bank, we are not pro- or anti-government. Nor are we, for that matter, pro- or anti- Dodd-Frank.
We do not wish to be caught up in the partisan echo chamber. If we are just reinforcing a partisan's point of view – whatever that is – we have failed. We must continue to be a conduit to a more thoughtful discussion.
American Banker's second annual Regulatory Symposium, which kicked off Thursday, is an extension of that core belief. It is a way for us to talk with speakers from across the ideological spectrum and invite experts with diverse views to talk about the critical issues of the day. It's also a way for bankers, regulators, lawmakers, consultants and others to interact with one another in a way that gets beyond simple rhetoric.
I hope attendees will witness some thought-provoking commentary and a thoughtful discussion covering some of the most challenging issues facing banks – just as they do every day reading American Banker.
Rob Blackwell is the Washington bureau chief of American Banker. The views expressed are his own. This article is adapted from his welcoming remarks at American Banker's second annual Regulatory Symposium.