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Critic's Notebook: Taking stock of stock market pundits

The gyrations of the market this week were nothing compared with the spoutings on business TV coverage.

August 12, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • From a week ago Thursday to Tuesday, the daytime audience for CNBC jumped 68%, the nighttime audience 111%.
From a week ago Thursday to Tuesday, the daytime audience for CNBC jumped… (CNBC )

It's one thing when CNBC's Jim Cramer or Rick Santelli get agitated — they've made their names with over-the-top reactions to the vagaries of the marketplace. But after four days of triple-digit shifts, even CNN Money's Poppy Harlow started to lose it.

"There's no rationality here," she said repeatedly, throwing her hands in the air as she reported on the latest jump in the Market Madness Mystery Tour that has instructed a surging TV audience this week about havens and treasuries with the same eager bafflement that surrounded the term "hanging chad" almost 11 years ago.

The volatile mood swings of the stock market, which reacted to last week's Standard & Poor's downgrade like tween girls at a canceled Justin Bieber concert ("full freakout mode" is how CNN's poet laureate, Wolf Blitzer, put it ), were nothing compared to the television coverage of same. As interns presumably scrambled to find ever-more creative synonyms for "plummet," anchors and analysts on the cable networks went hysterical and numerical, chronicling the Dow minute by minute with the tommy gun intonations of horse race announcers, slamming up charts and graphs and reaching such giddy heights of hyperbole — "Is the dollar now a double-edged sword impossible to catch barehanded on the way down?" was an actual question heard on CNBC — that it may be years before the profession recovers.

Gone was the restraint shown in the hours after news of Osama bin Laden's death, the energized but somber tones that accompany reports of natural disasters or military actions, the "objectivity" of political reporting. In its place was a collective adrenal gland dump. Here was a story everyone could go nuts over, a story with disaster in the headline and no body count; a story about money, which is not only intrinsically sexy, it means the networks were free to unleash all the crazy Wall Street types and foreign market experts.

Natural agitators like Cramer and Santelli — men born to scream on the floor of the stock market — were in their element, and even the more measured (and British) Simon Hobbs appeared to be using more than three facial muscles. Meanwhile, men and women who spend most of their lives muttering to themselves in the corners of the cultural conversation (because nothing is more boring than finance until the markets start to fall) found themselves ragged into hair and makeup. What does the Brandeis economics department think of the situation?

Suddenly the bean counters were rock stars.

It was good news for the business channels. From a week ago Thursday to Tuesday, the daytime audience for CNBC jumped 68%, the nighttime audience 111%; Fox Business grew 258% in the day and 162% at night.

Day after day, producers created multi-paned "Hollywood Squares" panels of financial pundits who yelled and fomented and pounded tables and said, "I told you so," who flipped and flopped along with the numbers and spoke words most of us do not understand in the accents of the globe. We all know Asia is important, but do we care about Australian banks? Apparently we do. And if New Zealand has a better Standard & Poor's rating than we do, I guess we best check in with them as well. What does this mean for the securities market? For the housing market? For gold? For Emma Stone's career?

In fact, as is often the case with instant analysis of any event, no one seemed to know anything much, but that did not stop a single soul from talking his or her head off, from launching into such soaring flights of financial digression that 3-D glasses seemed in order — the intro to a recent episode of CNBC made reference to "concern over contagion" and "black swan boom." "Is it simply a risk of urgent trade or are financial institutions also at risk? That's one question we will try to answer."

Not so well, it turns out. Those of us who do not have MBAs quickly surrendered any attempt to follow the actual conversation. We let the nouns go flying and focused mainly on tone of voice and demeanor, most of which were dialed so high that tuning in had the same physical effect of a triple shot, no foam latte. (How is Starbucks doing in all this anyway?)

Meanwhile, in the middle of it all bobbed, hilariously enough, the word "confidence." As in consumer confidence, the magic that makes this world go 'round. "How is consumer confidence?" everyone wanted to know the very moment they were able to draw breath after screaming "global disaster" for six solid days.

Not so great, it turns out. The consensus? People are worried, people are scared. And while it is certainly not the role of the press to sugarcoat news to keep the masses calm, a question about responsibility does arise. The rulers of Wall Street, Wolfe's Masters of the Universe, no doubt remain relatively unaffected by the screaming on cable news — during an appearance on CNBC, JPMorganChase CEO Jamie Dimon, stunningly casual in a blue button-down with the collar open, suggested that everyone just calm the heck down.

But for the average viewer, who as George Bailey would say does most of the living and dying, the buying and selling, in this world, it was pretty alarming. Great television but alarming. Because consumers were both on the hot seat — confidence, people, it's all about confidence — and powerless to act.

When Piers Morgan, looking characteristically aggrieved when things appeared to be turning around on Tuesday night, asked his panel of experts what the average American should do, the vaguely worded and much-hedged answer was: Nothing. Watch and wait.

Waiting is unavoidable, but watching? Ironically, by the time the dust settles and the meaningful analysis begins, the anchors will have run out of metaphors and the viewers will be too worn out to tune in.

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