McLean to examine decades-old roots of financial crisis


Bethany McLean

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Almost as soon as she took her fact-checker’s seat at Fortune magazine, Bethany McLean knew that a journalism lifestyle was the one for her. And a fact-checker’s job is not even that fun, McLean said.

McLean sort of fell into journalism, though. She received an undergraduate degree in math and English and began working as an analyst for the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs. By the time she joined Fortune in 1995, a journalism career was never on her radar. But then again, she was keeping her options open.

“I didn’t ever think about where I would end up, and in some ways, I think that’s a good thing, because that keeps you open to the opportunities that life brings that are pretty unexpected,” McLean said.

Based on her experience with business and journalism, McLean, editor-at-large at Vanity Fair, will speak at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater about the current state of the economy and about her new book, All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis. The book has brought McLean praise, criticism and attention from major media outlets, as well as popular programs like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Specifically, life brought her business journalism — an area that often gets a bad rap. But McLean said her dual degree probably was an early sign of a split brain and varied interests.

She added that business journalism is underrated.

“There’s this assumption that business isn’t cool … but business is what drives the world,” McLean said. “It is the business world that dictates how we all live, so I really fight against the notion of business journalism being niche. It’s not at all. It’s the world we live in.”

McLean added that it suits her because she prefers to tell her business stories through words, not numbers.

In 2010, McLean co-authored All the Devils Are Here with Joe Nocera, a business columnist for The New York Times. The book explains the events that led up to the 2008 financial crisis.

Two decades’ worth of mistakes and bad decisions, well-intentioned and not, led up to the crisis, and her book describes the creation of the crisis, not the aftermath of it.

McLean also was on the front lines of the Enron scandal. And although her experiences covering Enron’s collapse taught her about journalism, they particularly made her rethink her perceptions of business in general.

“I thought business was a lot more bloodless (and) black-and-white than it was, so I tended to see companies as numbers that either worked or didn’t work rather than collections of people where the personality and leadership style of the CEO really can dictate the course of events,” McLean said.

From a more philosophical standpoint, McLean said she now understands that otherwise good people can make very bad decisions, and that this happens often. Now, she sees business less as a study in numbers and more as a study of human nature.

This is in part why business journalism is so interesting to her.

“It’s always like what you never imagined,” McLean said. “I always say, ‘Anything is possible.’ It’s an area of coverage that is rife with all the best stuff of journalism.”

It is not an easy area to cover, though. The biggest challenge is seeing the big picture and addressing all sides of the story, McLean said.

“It’s a challenge to find enough people to talk to you that you think you’re getting a fair representation of the story,” McLean said. “The more controversial (a story is), the harder it is to do that. (Sources) may be deliberately or subconsciously selling a point of view.”

Journalists across the board face this problem, and the solution is clear, even if not always easy: talk to as many people as possible, McLean said.

In addition to All the Devils are Here, McLean co-authored in 2004 The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, a book about the corruption of Enron officials and a 2004 CLSC selection. She also has been a contributing editor and writer for Vanity Fair and Slate.