My interview with a high government official was running longer than usual. Behind me I could feel my cameraman moving restlessly. When it was over, I found out why.
“The interview took almost an hour,” he told me. “I couldn’t check my stocks.”
My curiosity piqued, I asked him how he picked the stocks he owned.
“I watch CNBC in the morning,” he said, “and I write down which stocks they are pushing,” he explained. The word “push” caught my attention, but he moved ahead without missing a beat. “Then I check two days later to see which stocks are moving ahead and I buy those. You know, it’s like a horse race.”
My cameraman was hardly alone. As captivating tales of skyrocketing prices of stocks such as Lucent, Yahoo! and a myriad of dot-coms and high-techs filtered through to the public, rank-and-file Americans scrambled to get in on this seeming bonanza. Many of them had never invested before; even high-school kids used their computers to log in to the market. Mutual funds, brokers and others stepped up their advertising to create their own bonanza.
For much of the press—electronic and print—eager to give the public what it wanted to read and hear, financial reporters became cheerleaders for Wall Street. Banished was the traditional emphasis of economic stories about inflation, the trade balance, consumer information, and similar themes. Gone, too, was the usual approach to reporting the stock market when the byword had been “check it out carefully. Don’t lose anybody’s money.”
In its place, financial reporting began to look like sports reporting: “Give ’em the scores, and show a few highlights of the game. Above all, keep ’em entertained!” Did Hewlett-Packard miss its earnings estimate? Quick, get it on the air! No need for a long, drawn out explanation that there could be solid reasons for the shortfall. Newsweek helped to stoke the frenzy in a 1999 cover story, “Everybody is Getting Rich but Me,” and Time weighed in by making dot-com CEO Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com its Man of the Year.
Entertainment needs stars. And the financial press helped to create them. CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo, for example, became known as the “money honey.” Even Wall Street analysts, whose job is to analyze the worth of a company and its stock for investors, became media celebrities. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter analyst Mary Meeker was interviewed so often that, in time, she was dubbed the “Queen of the Internet.” And her words inspired action. Meeker praised Priceline.com, and its stock shot up more than 17 points, to $151 a share. (By spring 2001, it was trading at about three dollars per share).
What a lot of the media outlets failed to let their readers and listeners know at the height of the boom was that many analysts worked for firms that had a financial interest in the stocks they were talking about. Indeed, as The Wall Street Journal reported, Meeker was paid $15 million in 1999 because her work had brought in $100 million in business (including that of Priceline.com) for the firm. Even Louis Rukeyser, that doyen of TV market reporters, interviewed an analyst who recommended three gaming and hotel stocks, all of which had been financed by his brokerage firm. And when a frequent Rukeyser guest was indicted for allegedly taking $6.9 million in kickbacks from brokerage firms, Rukeyser publicly defended him.
The relationship between analysts and companies their firms financed could have been easily checked. Yet few journalists bothered. Not until late in the game, perhaps too late for some investors, did much of the media begin to question, or at least to mention, these tie-ins. Nor did anybody check to see that some of the bullish dot-com CEO’s whom they were interviewing were actually selling chunks of their shares.
The huge concentration of financial press coverage pouring into Americans’ heads, in a seemingly endless 24/7 stream of consciousness (even early morning radio began to report on stock “futures” for the coming day), helped set off an investing mania not seen in the United States since the late 1920’s. And it happened at a time when the Internet had made would-be investors especially vulnerable. Stock touts and fly-by-night operators roamed the Internet. Worse, investors could now trade stocks right on their computers, bypassing the work a day stockbroker, who might possibly have warned them off risks in certain stocks.
Granted, this flood of information also made Americans somewhat more sophisticated about the stock market. Ten years ago none of us reporting economic news would ever have dared use terms such as “price-earnings ratio,” “cash flow,” or “futures,” and if we had our producers and editors would have demanded that we provide an explanation. No longer is that required. But while this flood of financial information makes Americans more aware of the market, the sad consequence is that more people are relying on what they hear about a stock, rather than making the effort to really research an investment. Today, the investor is likely to be someone like my cameraman who, not incidentally, was playing the market with his wife’s IRA money.
Even in this age of the Internet and 24/7 news cycles, I believe that part of the job of the financial reporter should be to offer the kind of guidance and information that can protect investors from themselves. There can be no argument that haphazard (some have called it “irrationally exuberant”) investing has, to some extent, existed whether the media was mindful of this obligation in their reporting. During the 17th century, Dutch investors bid up the price of tulip bulbs to exorbitant heights only to see that market crash. Then, a century later, thousands of Frenchmen lost their savings in what became known as the “Mississippi Bubble,” a scheme that promised investors unbelievable riches from huge gold and silver deposits in Louisiana and from out of the Arkansas River which was said to contain a fabulous emerald rock.
In defense of the working press—of the foot soldiers in the print and electronic trenches—much of the pressure to perform in this fashion came from top management. Through much of the 1990’s, CNBC, Fox and a slew of magazines chased after James Cramer, a huge fund operator who moonlighted as a financial writer. He was a loudmouth in what until then had been a pretty low-key environment. His copy and delivery were lively, even if his journalistic judgments were questionable. He once recommended a group of stocks in “Smart Money” without telling readers that he happened to own them. This is (or should be) an absolute no-no in any reporter’s book; indeed, it should be a firing offense, and in many places it would be.
In contrast to Cramer, NBC News’s long-running financial correspondent (now retired), the bow-tied Irving R. Levine, was offered a spot on his network’s then-new CNBC channel. He went but was quickly dropped. Why? Not enough pizzazz in his delivery! Significantly, CNBC kept going strong while arch cable-competitor CNN was paying the ultimate price for less pizzazz in its reporting: budget cutbacks and job layoffs.
Even with all the pizzazz, there remain financial journalists in print, TV, radio and the Internet who adhere to the old rules and maintain journalistic standards. Even during the feeding frenzy, New York Observer columnist Christopher Byron debunked high-flying, overpriced stocks week after week. Alan Abelson’s stock market column in Barron’s is a joy to read. And, at Forbes, its long-time former editor, James W. Michaels, was known for grilling reporters before he would publish a story (I know, having worked with Jim at Forbes in the early 1960’s).
By and large, the three network evening news programs did a fairly straightforward job of reporting both economic and Wall Street news, though the same could not always be said about some of the morning news shows. Both PBS’s NewsHour and CBS’s “Sixty Minutes II” did stories spotlighting the analyst-brokerage house connections and, in print, Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz did truly groundbreaking work in his recently published book, “The Fortune Tellers.”
I believe this kind of down-to-earth journalism will last despite a down market or investor disillusion. It will last because what gets reported is of value to everyone, even the non-investor. Indeed, as winter turns to spring, CNN is no longer alone in laying off financial journalists. The pink slip has been making the rounds at CNBC, including at least three on-air personalities. When ratings of these once highflying shows go down, the reason ought to be obvious and the lessons to be taken from it instructional: When investors are losing money they don’t want to see anything that reminds them of their losses or their gullibility.
The fact is bull markets often end in years of tears for both investors and those who work on Wall Street. In recent times, though apparently not recent enough for much of today’s financial press to remember, investors who bought at the top of the “Soaring Sixties” market in 1966 did not get their money back until 1995. It can take a generation for investors to forget their losses. In one such period, so many brokers and analysts were laid off that the joke on Wall Street was that New York City had the best-educated fleet of taxi drivers in the world. As the old saying goes: “The most expensive lessons are the ones you learn on Wall Street.”
This admonition might also apply to those in the media who put the razzle-dazzle in stocks that, in the end, cost their audience a lot of money but cost them something even more precious—their journalistic credibility.
Ray Brady was the chief business correspondent for CBS News for 23 years, after earlier stints at Forbes and Barron’s.