NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- 2013 was a banner year for news, on Wall Street and around the world. The Dow and the S&P set record after record, reaching all-time highs even as the fiscal chaos of Washington's budgetary battles led to sequestration cuts and a government shutdown. Silicon Valley as well as the capital was rocked by revelations of blanket surveillance, and details began to emerge of massive rate rigging schemes by the world's most powerful banks. What follows is a review of the heroes and villains who drove this year's headlines to such euphoric heights and such miserable lows (with apologies to devotees of the healthcare.gov fiasco, surely the product of some villainous back-end work but too ongoing for a retrospective rehash).
The Fourth Estate Strikes Back
It's been a rough century so far for journalism, but in 2013 three U.S. reporters - two expatriates (Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras) and a freelancer (Barton Gellman) - showed that the press is capable of breaking enormous stories of urgent public interest. Their reporting, based on NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, challenged governments and major corporations, and caught the eye of billionaire Pierre Omidyar: the founder and chairman of eBay is funding a new media venture led by Greenwald and Poitras, having pledged at least as much money as it would have cost him to purchase The Washington Post (bought by Amazon's Jeff Bezos in August for $250 million).
Snowden Saves Silicon Valley from the NSA, and Itself
Last century, Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex, a nexus of public and private power whose interests and aims might not accord with what he saw as "our basic purposes": "to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations." This year the world got some idea of the scope and scale of a new hybrid monster imperiling those same goals - the intelligence-tech complex - and Silicon Valley, both victim and accomplice of the NSA, has Edward Snowden to thank for the chance that reform might come before dragnet-style surveillance, deeply unpopular with potential customers around the world, becomes entrenched in U.S. telecom systems.
The Anti-Larry Summers
In October, a woman got the nod to serve as the world's most powerful economist, and all it took was perennial White House favorite Lawrence Summers' decision to withdraw from consideration. In announcing Janet Yellen's nomination to succeed Ben Bernanke as Fed chair, Barack Obama said, "She had sounded the alarm bell early about the housing market bubble and excesses in the financial markets before the recession." That's a bit hyperbolic. In 2005 Yellen predicted that the home price bubble would register as "a good-sized bump in the road" but suggested "the economy would likely be able to absorb the shock." By her own account, she "did not see and did not appreciate what the risks were with securitization, the credit ratings agencies, the shadow banking system, the S.I.V.'s - I didn't see any of that coming until it happened." Still, Yellen's candor contrasts favorably with the unapologetic style of a certain other veteran policymaker, and her focus on the labor market, in lieu of Summers's financial sector commitments, holds some promise for those concerned with income inequality and the real economy.