How business media can stop hurting America

Jon Stewart is an exceedingly bright and funny man, but is surrounded by this vague, uneasy aura of hypocrisy by allowing convenience to determine when he’s “just a comedian” or “the voice of Gen Y”.  The pervasive irony, the “isn’t this crazy?” exasperation is in the end defeatist, laughter in the face of helplessness. Stewart is today, however, an unavoidable touchstone because I feel compelled to go there in stating, “Business media, you are hurting America”.

There are parts of the problem I get – for CNBC the Nielsen ratings system does not include viewers at the office, a constituency that forms the majority of the business media audience. This leads to understandable challenges in terms of selling ad space, which in turn results in various formerly-bionic actors selling mattresses and discount electronics to stuff in our orifices during breaks. Responding to this by loudly spouting misleading rhetoric and outright falsehood, however, is not acceptable. To state again and again that because Fannie and Freddy contributed to the GFC that they were a primary cause, and the banking system was largely innocent, is patently false.  To state again and again that because tax increases would not be good economic policy at this point, that this automatically means that fiscal spending should also be prevented at all costs, is similarly destructive. Given the overwhelming body of evidence rejecting these claims, the only two possible reasons for arguing them are dishonesty or intellectual immaturity, and we’re all tired of immaturity representing our upside.

I’m not picking sides here, OWS is little better – screaming about “social justice” from atop their soapboxes as if we haven’t been arguing about the meaning of the term since Plato. Claiming to be on the side of social justice is an unarguable, theological statement little different and no more helpful than Tim Tebow thanking Jesus for helping him get the ball into the end zone, just another declaration of team allegiance.

When faced with opposition, children scream louder while adults, in recognition of their own fallibility and a degree of empathy for fellow citizens, compromise. In order for this to have any chance to occur, we need first a clear statement of facts not organized into rhetorical argument and here is where a Utopian business network has a major leadership role to play.

Details kill dogma, as the late Senator Moynihan used to point out effectively with “you are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts”.  When explaining BAC, for instance, instead of having an 0-for-’11 analyst talk about the horrors of regulation, amorphous “earnings power” and “technical support at $5”, there should be an expert without an axe to grind to go through the BAC’s balance sheet so investors can better understand why the stock is trading at ½ book value. Any number of experts are capable of detailing the importance of shadow banking exposure in Europe if given five minute to speak uninterrupted by the term “dumb Socialists”. There are literally hundreds of examples like this – the relationship between gold prices and negative real interest rates is another, where even most professional investors require more detail. There is also no shortage of available, unbiased sources to provide it – Pettis on China, Simon Johnson on Europe, Tyler Cowen on pretty much anything.  We need to hear, in other words, what’s happening and why, we don’t care how it fits into your political worldview.

It is simply not necessary that the increasing complexity of global finance be inversely correlated to the sophistication of news coverage, even of the temptation to simplify increases. Instead of pandering to existing beliefs and biases, business media has to start feeding the near insatiable appetite for deeper understanding of a rapidly changing, and yes, moderately less American, world. Otherwise they will continue to be part of the problem.

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6 thoughts on “How business media can stop hurting America

  1. I made the mistake in my even earlier youth (2007ish) of getting so agitated with a particular CNBC segment that I wrote a fairly detailed e-mail to one of the Anchoresses (I think Erin Burnett, but I could be wrong, there’s just so much well-groomed hair to keep straight).

    I remember distinctly the fairly prompt response I got which essentially stated: “We try to get things right, but we don’t always have the time to get them fully right, sorry”.

    These are, on the whole, fairly well educated people. They just don’t view their job as one of factual substance. They have a show to produce, not a dialogue to inform and improve. It’s such a waste of otherwise capable people. They all have very nice teeth, however, so there’s that.

    This is why CNBC remains on mute on our desk; and I even attempt not to read scrolling headlines. People used to say they kept it up as a kind of “insurance” against an event. Twitter is more effective for that once you’ve distilled the more reasonable trading sources.

  2. [...] Business TV is not built to explain an increasingly complex world.  (Interloper) [...]

  3. Octavio Richetta says:

    From your references to Stewart and CNBC, it appears that your focus is on TV business media. The two networks with the highest audience, CNBC and Bloomberg TV, approach the market as if it were a daily football game. It is just a shouting match, a circus, in which most commentators who manage money, their own or others, or work for firms which do, are there to provide a BIASED opinion that sells their book. All commentaros should be required to disclose their ten largest positions before they talk. That way the public would understand better where they come from.

    I enjoy the Charlie Rose show and when respected, independent economists, who don’t work for the investment houses or government, speak, e.g., Shiller.

  4. merily says:

    This is a wonderful post. Thank you. (I always enjoy where your mind will go to play, way beyond mine; even so I think you meant adult “fallibility”?)

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