Friday, July 24, 2009

An Open Letter To The Financial Media

By 1-2 and Marla Singer


It can hardly have escaped your notice that a battle of epic proportions, simmering at the fringes for months, was this very week finally joined. Pursuing what can only be termed a "mobius strip news cycle" strategy, certain "financial news" programs have taken to throwing those pesky "parasitic" bloggers to the proverbial wolves at every opportunity. Given the tenor of discourse and the ad hominem pursuits of our mainstream colleagues, conveniently beamed right into our offices from the from the otherwise warming glow of our LCD panels, we at Zero IntelligenceHedge welcome the opportunity to contribute to the discussion- not, mind you, because our feelings are hurt (you can’t hurt something that doesn’t bleed), but rather because our appraisal of these attacks puts them on par with the baseless ramblings of the Tourette's afflicted homeless guy who loiters about outside our offices. Pure stream of consciousness, laden with panic and paranoia, and characterized more by shrill tone and volume than a respectable signal to noise ratio. Desperate, and desperately ill.

Not so long ago, the dual-class share structure of newspapers was a bedrock principal of media corporate governance. Insulating- the argument went- the paper from the whims of the public was necessary to the independence of the Fourth Estate (can't have pesky shareholders dictating sacrosanct editorial policy, after all). Those days are over. This change is neither the result of some maverick revolt in corporate governance, nor is it the consequence of a dramatic awakening by institutional holders (who would require close order thermonuclear detonations to rouse). It is merely the sad result of the most abject and base squandering of a valuable estate since the Manor of Marr fell into the bloodsucking clutches of early 19th century English probate.

The Fourth Estate has spent and leveraged its reputation capital in keeping with the finest traditions of 21st century investment banking. As a consequence, these age-old institutions are quickly for the way of their banking parallels: Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. We are actually quite fortunate to witness the historic dying gasps of old media, painfully resisting the very same creative destruction they utilized to, temporarily, supplant town criers, printed pulp, Valueline and teletype as primary sources of daily news-flow. When the future of no lesser institution than the New York Times seems uncertain, and Tribune's only real valued asset is a baseball team (and the Chicago Cubs at that) it becomes difficult to go long old media brands. However, like all dying industries, instead of changing their own ways they choose to attack the new guardians of the estate: New Media. This is not to say "new media" is perfect, far from it. It does, however, have the virtue of being effective. Too effective, in fact, if you ask certain networks. Is it any wonder that we are now in the midst of new "circulation wars" or that the same "yellow journalism" has once again become en vogue? Today, however, we call them "click through rates" and "hard hitting programming." ("Hard hitting" referring primarily to the effect the carefully selected anchors have on viewers of the opposite sex- and so it has been since Arthur "The Desert Fox" Kent went to the sandbox for CNN).

It is easy to point fingers, to try to shift blame for what is, at the core, a lack of adaptability. Viewed from a distance, that mainstream media, burdened by its wholesale dependence on personality, would be threatened by anonymous speech is totally unsurprising. How old exactly is the phrase "media personality" after all? How alien must it be to veterans of the business that media without the personality might appeal? How difficult it must be to fight in a ring with someone who doesn't play by the rules, and when there is no ammunition for the only weapons available, the personal attack and the dirt-digger? If the primary complaint is that we have yet to provide a photocopy of our driver's licenses, that is concerning. With this in mind, Ladies and Gentlemen of the media, we would like to make a few points:

1. Anonymous speech is not a crime.

You may or may not be aware that there is a long tradition of anonymous speech in the United States. It did not begin here. Not by a long shot. In 509 BC Publius Valerius Publicola and colleagues transformed, with the help of extensive pamphleteering, the monarchy that ruled Rome into a republic by deposing and banishing Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. (What a great anchor name that would make!) The result was twofold. First, the invention of the Roman title of "Consul." Second, the beginning of the Roman Republic. You may recognize "Publius Valerius Publicola," as the precursor later taken by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison in the form of "Publius," the pen name over which they wrote the Federalist Papers. We shouldn't have to point out the import of these events. If they escape you, may we recommend the World Book’s new age form, Wikipedia. (Britannica is, as one might expect, as dead as parchment). All this is a long way of pointing out exactly what you are indicting when you belittle pseudonymity. (As an aside, in sophisticated discourse, it pays to know the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity).

Confusing identity with reputation is a common error made by the enemies of anonymity. Do we respect the anchor of a well-known financial news channel (roll with us for a minute here) because of his Italian last name? Or do we respect him because of his reputation for hard-hitting financial journalism? Surely some embarrassing moments about his past might cause some snickering. But this is identity, not reputation- certainly not professional reputation. Is it relevant to the content of the news that another anchor on said channel got a wee-bit amorous in a taxi with a woman (or two) not his wife? (Or a woman someone else's wife?) Only insofar as that anchor makes his career about identity, that is personality, instead of reputation. If he does that, he is fair game for all the snark and gossip he whorishly solicits.

Since we write under pseudonyms we have but one currency: the quality of our content, and the reputation built since we started writing it. Readers will decide for themselves whether our content is informative and worthy of their time. There is no cloak of personality in which we may hide. Our professional "brands" are just as vulnerable as any reporter on any network. Unless you are a Luddite of some kind we are easy to contact. Contrast this with our experience with you. We have discovered, as it happens, that you never return our e-mails. It is apparently beneath you. Furthermore, owing to our lack of a highly leveraged, publicly held parent, we lack the traditional gatekeepers many personalities use to screen potential "bearers of bad newscorrection." Are there some bloggers out there who seek no more than to rake muck? Of course, but the same can be said for any circle of journalists you may care to name. Our writing is all we have (personality does not interest us) and so we strive to keep it accurate, informative, and interesting- just as any journalist would. Does that mean we consider ourselves journalists? What's in a name? Many of us are closer to op-ed writers. Many of us are purely editors. Some of us even fancy ourselves philosophers. But, may i remind you, editorials are generally written by a “board” even more anonymous than ourselves- subject to no army of instant-gratification grammar Nazis, and rarely lowering themselves to so much as issue a correction. Think anonymous writers are all scum? Read the Economist some time.

As to the personal habits of various mainstream reporters, we are totally uninterested in these details. They are only relevant where they expose the hypocritical tenor of someone who chides anonymous authors to reveal themselves and then hides behind a "no comment" when confronted with his or her own personality defects.

Attacking anonymity is the nexus of this misdirection error and an over-reliance on the media value of personality over content. This must end. We've said so long before mainstream media attacked us, not least in our manifesto. Content is what is important here, and none of you seem to understand that. You fall back to personality because it is your last and only hope. We don't care to play along, thank you. Why?

2. Your unveiling motives are less than pure.

Demanding the unveiling of anonymous authors is often a pretense for opening the door to personal attacks. We recognize that conflict makes for good prime time television. We understand that producers seek to capitalize on this and that, for reasons obvious even to a first year psychology student, juicy personal attacks draw ratings. Zero Hedge enjoyed a bit of personal experience in this vein when exposed to the high-pressure "are we doing this or what" come-on of a certain financial network producer. We declined, prompting "the talent"'s attempt to savage us on-air (and our largest spike of web traffic theretofore). Interesting as it will be in 20 years for sociologists to study, this is not journalism.

Ladies and Gentlemen, one-line zingers and contrived time limits designed to impale your hapless guests do not constitute "constructive conflict" worthy of the your interest in the Fourth Estate, which, incidentally, you do not own, but rather hold in trust on behalf of the citizenry. Want to see real, purposeful conflict on television? Try pulling some 5 or 10 year old archive tapes on the McLaughlin Group, or 1980s vintage runs of the British quiz show "Mastermind." The latter was invented by Bill Wright, a former gunner in the Royal Air Force who based the premise of the show on his experience resisting interrogation by the Gestapo. Do we need to point out that you are out of your league? That was conflict television. Mastermind itself is even purely entertainment (the British love to watch their fellows squirm). Your efforts pale in comparison and, as it happens, your urge to entertain is entirely misplaced when mixed with "financial journalism." We suggest you reflect seriously on this before you put the deci-split-screen up for the [n]th time. Actually, we take it back. Nothing better characterizes everything that is wrong with your approach than the deci-split-screen. As you were.

In case it was not already clear, let us just be plain: we are not interested in your ad hominem drama. We are not so in love with fame that we are prepared to subject ourselves to that kind of artifice in exchange for it. We understand this worldview puzzles and frightens you, and that we must seem an opponent no easier to grasp than quantum mechanics (well we have a former physicist among us, so maybe that's a bad example). Look back at real drama and notice that it never needed to be invented in the newsrooms of 1972. Demanding our unveiling is an excuse. An excuse wielded by those who have no content of value to offer. Just to be clear: this means you.

3. The era of personality-centric media needs to end- quickly, and (hopefully) painfully.

The fact that you thrive on the momentum of personality-centric reporting does not mean that we do, or that it is the right kind of reporting. Your shrill cries of "coward" in the face of anonymous or pseudonymous authors somehow implies that narcissism is equivalent to bravery. This is, in your case, self-serving. And, frankly, we beg to differ with respect to your basic premise.

On the contrary, we think narcissism is cowardice. Personality-centric reporting is the last resort of those who have no valuable content to offer on fading networks with waning delivery channels. Edutainment is a mutation designed (poorly) to forestall total decline. None of you seem to understand that the issue is content, not comment.

There was a time when the pinnacle of global discourse came from the newsroom at CBS. When no self-respecting citizen who considered themselves informed would go long without the evening news. What do we have now? Can we not all recognize what a severe devolution this is?

When we have Dan Rather's 77 year old face on HDTV, and this program is called "Dan Rather Reports," (the focus on the personality of the host is almost daunting) can we not agree that something is wrong? It is not that Dan Rather's majestic countenance is not comely (well, not only that) but that any countenance at all is a major portion of the visual offering. People, HDTV is for football, not news. If you have any doubt that this is so, consider how many HDTV reports of any weight emerged from Iran this month, or last. Zero. None. Of course. This was easily the most important foreign policy story of the year. Where did the scoops come from? Twitter and YouTube. We don't claim Twitter and YouTube are the next revolution. We think Twitter and YouTube are sort of lame. It's just that they are somewhat less lame than your medium. Stepping back for a moment, that is really quite sad.

Video killed the newsroom. Stop trying to jump-start the corpse.

4. You can't fight a dead model. (They don't respond to the sleeper hold at all, and getting caught with one while trying is bad news).

It is not our fault or our problem that your business model is dead. We didn't kill it. You did. You killed it when you did a 16 minute expose on the business of porn. You killed it when you stacked the anchor desk with stacked anchors. You killed it when you started writing books for six-figure advances, and schmoozing for access to fill those books with juicy tidbits about (and dialogue from) senior executives on Wall Street. You killed it when you hired an audio producer to dub in dramatic music in times of financial crisis. You killed it when you started paying someone six-figures to create eye-catching graphics. Every dollar you spent on this nonsense was a dollar you took away from the newsroom. Is it any wonder that reporters at the Wall Street Journal are paid shameful trifles while "the talent" (for the unwashed, we mean the TV anchors) rival investment banking paychecks?

5. Take it from us. It's time to punt.

When you've gotten to the point where you are attacking online media in order to boost viewing of embedded video clips of your content, inventing fights with new media to boost ratings, when you are boosting online ad revenue this way, might not it be the time to just cut out the expensive cost center middlemen (we are looking at you- in the eye- stacked anchors) and move to online distribution entirely? We've been watching quite carefully and we haven't seen a story above the 5th grade level out of you in over a year. (Except, perhaps for the piece on porn, that was at 7th grade level for sure). Instead it seems clear that you have been reduced to calling us "morons" and "dickweeds." (We can say "fuckhead" in our medium, how about you?) We are sorry to tell you that the last decent movie John Hughes wrote was Uncle Buck. (Some people cite Home Alone, which came out a year later, but we think this nonsense). That is to say, personal attacks, one-liners, snarky comedy and "zingers" were funnier in 1989. It is now 2009, and no one is going to play "Don't You Forget About Me" while you walk away through the parking lot after work. (That is unless your producer hangs speakers out the window). If you want to drop a zinger here and there, better make sure it is bracketed on both sides with some real content. Stick to parody and satire. Name calling only works for awhile.

6. Get out of the cycle of co-personality-dependence.

When your biggest ratings and embedded hit counts come from fights between the various gargantuan egos on your anchor desk it should tell you two things. First, that your have become addicted to on-air sideshows. Second, that you have hauled your audience down with you into the blackness of personality-dependence addiction. They are so starved for something real that they cannot comprehend that there might be something better than watching someone scream and push buttons to produce canned sound effects, or call a fellow anchor an intellectual lightweight. Of course, when you run out of material for staged, behind-the-scenes drama, we are the next easiest target. We are shocked. May we recommend something novel? Investigate something other than your co-anchor. How about fraud? Groundbreaking, we know.

All our criticism aside for a moment, we recognize that in many ways it is not your fault. A drowning institution grasps at anything that floats. If we are discouraged by anything it is your inability to just swim on your own. Perhaps it has been so long that you've forgotten how. That's easy to fix. Kick your legs. Breathe. Do a lap. Trust us. They get easier. Meanwhile, we'll keep researching and writing. See you for couple's swim!

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44 comments:

newyorker said...

too long, didnt read.

why not just say you work in financial services and for good reason you keep your name and that of your employer silent.

these guys are just panicking dinosaurs. none of your readers care what they say, except to the extent that its funny.

so my advice: just laugh. that's what we're doing.

Anonymous said...

so good it is painful.....

Anonymous said...

just challenge them to a balance sheet reading contest. i really don't know why you guys are letting them get to you like they are.

Anonymous said...

A bit stiff in the wording, but comprehensive, trenchant, and dead center on target. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

testing anon comments

Scott said...

this is a watershed post.

Anonymous said...

Readers have decided...your site is a daily must-read. I can skip CNBC and the MSM websites for a month & have missed nothing except cheerleading, active misdirection and piss-poor anchoring which masquerades as financial journalism. Am not a regular commentor (in fact-first time ever)but I had to state that I appreciate all of the time and the effort it must take. And I also appreciate that the cult of personality is truly removed from the mix on ZeroHedge. It serves to highlight the actual news and analysis--novel concept and much appreciated.

GawainsGhost said...

Marla, Tyler, 1-2, and everyone else at Zero Hedge, you know we love you. The MSM is only good for comedy these days, and not even very good comedy at that. (Something is only funny if it's true, and truth vanished in the major television and print media long ago. So now they're just pathetic, albeit somewhat humorously so.)

I found your evisceration entertaining, but I would recommend that you would be better served by completely ignoring their scurriously attacks. Unless your intention is to further drive them to dementia, in which I say soldier on.

Anonymous said...

Point made... let's move on.

I prefer substantive posts like "New York City's Pain", "The Dangers of High Frequency Trading... As Predicted by Lawrence H. Summers" and "Unemployment Rate by State: June Update".

On the other hand, postings such as "A Plea For Your Made In China Garbage" promoting Wallstreetpro, while amusing, stoops to CNBC's level if such postings become primary focus, IMHO.

Let's see a hard hitting piece on DTCC (as promised) and its subsidiary Cede & Co. Here is primer: http://publikationen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/volltexte/2007/4885/pdf/ILF_WP_068.pdf

Falcor said...

Damn! The girls (assumption) rock!

You, Tanta, Stoneleigh.

I love you!

Anonymous said...

thank you for incisive factual reporting - this is a great post - keep up the great work an let the gasbag wallow in his own self aggrandized poo..BTW does Bob Saunders post on zero hedge too?

Mike said...

Way to go Marla. I have been saying for over a year that CNBC provides little or no content. They are nothing more than a bunch of juvenille deliquents. You are 100% correct in calling them all FUCKHEADS. The pen is truely mightier than the sword

Demosthenes20XX said...

This was, in a word, exquisite.

Bravo (and thank you) to all the ZH crew for what you do.

Anonymous said...

My name is Legion, for we are many.

AlexMc said...

Very well written and a direct hit! I have to wear headphones just to block out the CNBC noise while I read Zero Hedge articles. Keep it coming!

Anonymous said...

Hi Tyler

Are you inflating these witche,and that pupet by mentioning them....really don't care about them lets go back to buisness.

Minestein said...

Nice, really nice, I liked the ad hominem attack part the best. It seems like that is all MSM does lately, ridiculing with one liners instead of presenting facts. I prefer to read facts rather than Listen to some deadhead stacked anchors fantasy land gesticulations any day. If I never watch another deadhead MSM analyst again in my life, it will be too soon. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK and excellent reporting Zero Hedge.

Anonymous said...

Time to call BS on the propaganda machine.

Buy more, borrow more, spend more, think less, question less

Maybe the recession is a good thing longer-term.

After all, it's all after you've lost everything, that you're free to be anything

gray said...

There's a cogent argument here, but its lost inside writing that is trying too hard to be entertaining. It depends on your ultimate goal, but IMHO you could be more effective.

The tenants of the argument:

1.) The truth doesn't change based on who speaks it*, but motives matter.**

2.) CNBC is conflicted in always seeking/reporting the truth.***

This isn't satire, its snark. You win on the value of the argument, no need to go over to the dark side.****


*The human tendency of equating personality with credibility risks logical fallacy; assuming truth based on who's delivering the message may save the heavy lifting of weighing the merits of each individual argument, but it carriers a risk tradeoff.
**Critical thinking demands that motives be understood; pseudonymous speech is legal but it carries the added burden of communicating motive.

***High quality reporting of substance will often carry political and financial cost. Theoretically, this cost can be overcome, over time, with high quality reporting of substance - because there is value to truth.

****You're intelligent, we get it. A sermon of 5000 words to communicate an argument of 100 words is more about convincing your audience of your own superiority...and it underwhelms the message.

Still entertaining tho.

Tom in AZ said...

What a read! Too bad they won't have the attention span to get through it. Great work, all of you.

Anonymous said...

Zero Hedge RULES!

Anonymous said...

keep up the good work, ZH. the CNBC idiots are so worthless that i don't even bother reading the close captioning when i'm at the gym and forgot my headphones that day. in fact, mistakenly glancing at their close-captioned idiocy for a moment furthers the point of just how worthless the talking heads on TV are.

Anonymous said...

Classic piece....they are scared and they are empty. Anyone with even a pinch of intelligence can see right thru them and as an investor I use them as my contrarian indicator and do the absolute opposite....there is a definitive quiet revolution going on and its not with a gun or a sword but something far more powerful...the written and spoken word.

Anonymous said...

This was brilliant. Using humor and sarcasm to make very serious points about the decline and fall of MSM Financial "News" is the highest form of insult. That's why people love the Onion.

F*** CN-"BC". So easy, a cave man can watch it. Or is that so stupid a cave man can watch it?

HS said...

Mainstream journalism is dieing. I don't even have a TV anymore.

Ryan said...

All very true. I would say one thing in defense of the Gasbag. He is the only one on CNBC out there digging for news. CNBC is not about news, it is about selling. An old school reporter digging up something, anything, is still important. His attack on blogs? Stoopid.

Great piece though, all true. I am a fan of ZH. Thank you so much for all your efforts.

Jim in Ohio said...

Absolutly brilliant. I love you dickweeds.

Peter Melzer said...

This is a well written defense. But, do not waste precious time on defamation like this. Keep on reporting. Countless people read and trust in your analyses.

Anonymous said...

Superb!

However, I did think Faber's House of Cards was reasonably well done.

nyongesa said...

I'm a big zerohedge fan, but this was just rubbish. It took 27 lines of sarcasm and snark, before the subject became apparent. The response while witty is childish. Zerohedge and key parts of the blogoshpere are critical to an informed citizenry, and one of the gifts of the net-gods, but this focus on the worthlessnes of others is a hubris that does nobody any good. It's like those "discussions" on faux news, that degenerate to the most base possible level.

whether it's E! entertainment news, to mundane CNN stories on what plane crashed where, there is a role for all these outlets. I have disdain for CNBC because their "news" has a huge impact. But, to denigrate newspapers, for which little alternative infrustructure of reporting and research exists, is a little to pseudo anti-establishment teenage for me.

The transformation of old media is innevitable, and the conflicts that the post aims to point out are important, but so far their are no clear substitutes for a NY times reporter in Kabul, or Mogadishu, or a local small town newspaper,so spit and vomit on all these media outlets. You are not willing or even interested in the majority of their stories.

Anonymous said...

It does leave one wondering - does CNBC lack the intelligence or knowledge to question ethically dubious/illegal behavior on Wall Street, or do they simply steer clear of examining any of it until it is over and they can do a postmortem special on it? Either way, the result is the same. As a viewer, you have to ask yourself, "How much useful information have I gotten from them in the last week?" For me, the answer is "none".

Big Chief said...

I watch MSM "financial" networks solely for the nice racks.

When I want something for my brain, I turn to ZH. Keep kicking the MSM in the nuts (but where do you kick a FOXy Lady?)

Igor said...

Anonymity is dangerous. You replace your name with a brand (Zero Hedge). Instead of promoting your name you promote your brand. Instead of personal narcissism you create brand narcissism. Instead of personal power you build brand power. The danger is that your brand allows you to avoid personal responsibility. The CNBC personalities (I do not like them too) bare personal responsibility and will be personally asked for their words.

Todd M said...

Brilliant! It about time we finally lay the likes LEE, MNI, GCI, NYT, TRB, NWS'A/DJ, JRC, CBS and GE/CNBC to rest. The model is broken. While in depth reporting may be dead at the traditional outlets its nice to see it live on.

Indie said...

Top!

stopped reading ZH a while back. coming back to the fold.

Bukko_in_Australia said...

Excellent evisceration! I disagree with the posters who say it's too long, unnecessary or stooping to the level of the bloviators. The truth always needs to be told. Stick the knife in and twist it!

Fortunately, I don't an opportunity to watch the bobbleheads where I live. I do tune CNBC (and other ridiculous American channels) in when I'm on holiday in the U.S. or Europe. It amazes me that people apparently take this clown theatre seriously. I mean, c'mon, Jim Cramer? Crazy Cosmo Kramer of "Seinfeld" made more sense, and he was a fictional character.

Things like this made me wish I had more time to read ZH. But I've got a life to lead. Thank goodness I still have a job, mates!

Anonymous said...

I read your blog everyday-before the market, during the market and after the market. You are doing a great service to the investor community. I truly appreciate all of your reporting.

However, I would, like someone here had posted earlier, stay away from that "wallstreet pro" garbage. In the midst of factual reporting and your great "awake! Arise! the American investor" kind of investigative journalism, you don't need that hate-filled, violent creature, who oozes hatred at everyone (immigrants, outsourcing, freetrade...)and everything for his sad state. Please stop that nonsense.

PazzoMundo said...

Not sure why you are buying into the drama.

The networks are looking for anything that can add a spark of interest to their coverage. It's free advertising for you. So you benefit from their contrived arguments?

It was vaguely interesting to begin with - but recognise it for what it is - take the pat on the back and move on.

Beanieville said...

I felt asleep 9 hours halfway reading.

Beanieville said...

Why all the chitchat? A huge bull market is coming.

ToNYC said...

Media 2.0 for the inside dope.
No way to make it come but on the downlow.
In Editors We Trust as well as God.
Whining is their lot; enjoy their desperate thrashing about to reverse their well-deserved irrelevancy by seeing to harpoon the Great White Truth..for a classic and in memory of my neighbor, jon,
put this kpfa audio mp3 in your iPod on a quiet drive and arrive enlightened
http://informationclearinghouse.info/article23122.htm

Damien said...

When was the last time anyone investing in something because of CNBC? Nuff said.

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ToNYC said...

When was the last time you saw anyone wear a vest?