Why CNBC Is Bad For The Economy

Isaiah J. Poole

Jon Stewart deserves a medal for finally getting the public talking about the ugly, dangerous truth about the leading outlet for business and economic news coverage, CNBC: It often inflames, but rarely informs.

In fact, CNBC has turned inflaming into a business strategy. The New York Times this week reported that CNBC is encouraging its hosts “to speak their minds, making the line between reporter and commentator almost indistinguishable at times.”

The cable channel apparently thinks there is money to be made as the mouth of that segment of Wall Street that wants President Obama’s economic recovery plan to fail, in the hopes that a new conservative political regime will reignite the drunken orgy of greed that was so much fun for Wall Street before the rest of us got stuck with the hangover.

While much of the attention in the back-and-forth between Stewart and CNBC has focused on the network’s high-profile and high-wattage stock picker, Jim Cramer, Cenk Uygur’s commentary today in The Huffington Post is right that the attention on Cramer’s schtick misses the point:

The real problem is their reporting — or lack thereof. The CNBC reporters and anchors make the Bush press corps look like draconian inquisitors. They are obsessed with access. This is a problem with all of the media, and something Jon Stewart points out all the time. But it is particularly acute at CNBC (and all other business news channels).

I have a close friend who works at a business news station — and here is the worst kept secret in show business — it’s all about the access. If you piss off the CEOs or the companies, you’re going to get a call from your boss. You have jeopardized our relationship with them!

That is very thinly disguised code words for — don’t ever say anything negative about a company we cover otherwise your job is in the trouble. The message is clear — go along to get along. This isn’t journalism. It’s public relations by another name.

CNBC never did any exposés about the enormous risks these financial companies took. They never exposed the insanity of the derivatives market. And they never told their audience that the executives of these companies have been robbing their shareholders blind. Because they didn’t see that as their job. They saw their job as doing whatever it took to keep Wall Street happy and playing ball with them.

They were part of the broken system. There was no journalism going on at CNBC. That is what our underlying complaint is. That is what CNBC continues to miss to this day as they try to defend themselves by saying their words were taken out of context. The problem was the context!

I have been a regular CNBC watcher for most of its 20-year history, and while the network has occasionally allowed progressive critics of Wall Street and GOP policies to appear on its programs, the network failed in the run-up to the financial crisis to engage in critical investigation of the behavior of either Wall Street financial institutions or their enablers in the Bush administration. Hand-wringing documentaries after the fact don’t count.

But this isn’t simply about CNBC. This is about the obligation of media outlets, at a time of financial crisis, to be especially diligent and especially thorough about giving the public fair, impartial information about the economic crisis and its solutions. Especially on television, that level of reporting is rare.

Consider the reporting on the federal budget the past few weeks: The picture that people have been given by the mainstream media is of a budget stuffed with “earmarks,” federal projects that have no apparent useful purpose. Occasionally, examples are tossed out without context, such as a $1.7 million project to study how to mitigate pig manure odor. But no news outlet that I am aware of has mentioned the facts contained in this Scientific American article I found in a 30-second search on Google.

I understand television, including television news, has to have sizzle. But now more than ever there must be steak behind the sizzle. The “n” in CNBC stands for, or at least used to stand for, “news.” If that’s no longer true, they should at least drop the “n.” Having its call letters mean the “Coddling Business Channel” would at least accurately reflect what the network does, and the nation would know to go elsewhere to find the honest information and context they need to understand and evaluate Washington’s economic policies and Wall Street’s behavior. But if we want news out of CNBC and its cable-news running buddies, we need to be relentless in demanding it.

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