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Networks Seek Reporting Balance

AFTER THE ATTACK

Media: On the day that stock trading resumes, TV tries to find a comfortable spot between patriotism and objectivity.

September 18, 2001|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Caught between the tension of promoting patriotic buying or protecting the individual investor, the financial news TV networks sought to find balance in covering the return to trading at the New York Stock Exchange. During the day, many guests pushed a message of optimism, even as the Dow Jones industrial average tumbled about 7%, down 684.81 points at the close.

A perfectly timed half-percentage-point Federal Reserve rate cut early in the morning set an upbeat tone for CNBC and CNNfn reports about an hour before the official NYSE opening at 9:33 a.m. EDT But 10 minutes before the open, a Chicago-based futures trader warned CNNfn, "The markets are trading on emotion today."

Networks across the dial, not just financial channels, were on hand with live coverage of the official two minutes of silence, punctuated by chirping cell phones, and the now ubiquitous "God Bless America" that preceded the ringing of the bell by rescue workers. Then it was on to the chaotic opening, as the Dow quickly slid several hundred points.

Minutes after the opening, on CNBC, a large official group including New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki, the state's two senators, Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill packed in around floor reporter Maria Bartiromo. "Everybody should step to the plate right now," Giuliani said. "We're the No. 1 financial market in the world," added Schumer, as each official gave a similar exhortation.

Minutes later, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt said, "I think we've done a lot to inspire people to feel comfortable purchasing."

Over on CNNfn however, "Moneyline" anchor Lou Dobbs was down on the floor watching the market drop as he noted, "Frankly, it's not as negative as one might expect." Then it was time to switch, as Bartiromo turned to the falling indexes and the group of politicians trouped over to give their message to the viewers watching Dobbs.

So it went through the day, as the market veered lower, recovered somewhat, dropped more steeply and then closed above the day's low. Charts of historic market drops vied with guests talking about the positive signs.

Dobbs, in an interview, said he was trying for a measured approach. "We had a number of people today, on and off air, who had recommended that people buy out of a sense of patriotism. I tried as politely as I could to temper that a bit, by noting that these markets . . . are markets of choice. It's very difficult to make the argument that out of patriotism a small investor should put money on a market that's falling precipitously."

CNBC Chief Executive Pamela Thomas-Graham said she had asked her newsroom to be conscious of having a much bigger and wider audience than usual. "Our normal audience is a pretty sophisticated group of investors," she said. By contrast, on Monday, reporters were asked to avoid financial jargon and not make assumptions about viewers' knowledge. "We wanted to make our programs understandable and accessible to people."

She also asked journalists "to be dispassionate, not to celebrate if the market goes up or lament if the market goes down. Give people the facts they need and let them draw their own conclusions about what's happening."

The day was challenging, she said. "Most all of, our reporters had friends and family connected to the financial community. A lot of our regular guests were deeply touched by tragedy; some regular guests are not with us any more. It is a deeply personal story for the financial community, and we are part of the financial community."

Before trading started, TV and newspaper reporters from some of the nation's largest financial outlets roamed the streets in front of the exchange, hunting for traumatized workers. At 6 a.m. EDT, the selection was slim.

Carly Sanderson, a 34-year-old legal assistant, politely told one camera crew, "Thanks, but I don't really want to talk to you." The camera crew continued to follow the woman. She walked faster. The reporter kept asking questions.

Sanderson began to jog. The reporter, a woman in a skirt and heels, stopped.

Suddenly, a black limousine pulled up in front of the exchange, and its chairman and chief executive, Richard Grasso, stepped out. The financial reporters descended and began shouting questions and pleas for a comment.

After a few words about American unity, Grasso crossed the street. Several dozen financial reporters, standing behind a police blockade, screamed his name, trying to lure him back.

"Dick! Dick, I know you can hear me!" shouted Judy Martin, a reporter with Public Radio International's "Marketplace." "Don't you ignore me! Come back here!"

Grasso opened the front door of the exchange and walked through.

*

Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter contributed to this report.

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