DID THE MEDIA CAUSE THE RECESSION?

By: Carl Sullivan

Financial Journalists Ponder the Question


Did the media cause the economic downturn?

Probably not, but there’s clearly some collective guilt among
business journalists about the current state of the stock market
and broader business conditions.

About 50 of them gathered in a New York City tavern last week for
“Media Culpa,” a panel sponsored by mediabistro.com and The
Daily Deal. After several years of singing the New Economy’s
praises, it was time for some self-flagellation.

Christopher Byron, a veteran financial columnist who writes for
Bloomberg, said the last decade has produced some “horrible
economic reporting,” which at least partially pumped up the
Internet bubble. Byron said the recently released U.S. Census
reports show millions of undocumented immigrant workers – a
group that, if considered by economists and journalists, would
“puncture the productivity myth.”

Geoff Lewis, who recently lost his job as editor in chief of
CNBC.com during a company downsizing, said some of this bad
journalism was in fact a direct result of the good times had by
all. As magazines and newspapers ballooned with advertising,
editors saw their edit space double and even triple. With so many
column inches to fill, inexperienced reporters were hired, free-
lancers could get almost anything published, and “basic reporting
sometimes went out the window,” said Lewis, who previously worked
for TheStreet.com and BusinessWeek.

The audience – filled with journalists from The Wall
Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, and their ilk –
murmured in agreement when Byron said the media fed, but didn’t
solely create, the expansion of the late 90s. In some cases, the
dot-commers co-opted language used by the new-media press. Lewis
recalled the awe of seeing metaphors coined by technology writers
in the mid-90s suddenly becoming full-fledged business plans that
were drawing millions in venture capital.

All this New Economy giddiness made investing a form of
recreation, added Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker writer and
author of “The Tipping Point,” which explores how social
phenomena can behave like epidemics. Investing in tech stocks was
the “adult version of Nintendo,” he said. With all the press
about dot-com millionaires, many were eager to play this get-
rich-quick game – an observation which caused one attendee
to point out that gambling also increased in the late 90s.

This prompted one journalist to blame the public for the market’s
woes. It’s all about the public’s greed, he said. A man who
identified himself as a former CNBC producer chimed in that Wall
Street is really to blame, since its analysts and stockbrokers
told everybody to buy these new companies.

Byron answered that journalists are supposed to be professionals
who question what their sources tell them, not just parrots of
whatever Wall Street is saying. Others agreed, saying the press
was too enthusiastic about technology at the expense of good old-
fashioned skepticism. As Lewis pointed out, it takes a lot of
guts to stand up and say the big trend story is wrong.

One writer wondered if the press shouldn’t be asking tougher
questions of the bricks-and-mortar businesses that are pink-
slipping thousands of workers. The economy may be slower, and
companies may not be making as much money as last year, but many
of these businesses didn’t lose their shirts in new media either.
Instead, they’re “right-sizing” merely to appease a more-
demanding Wall Street, she suggested.

Nearly everyone agreed that the late 90s were heady times for
all. Business journalists went from being the dregs of the
newsroom to the stars, Lewis said. “We achieved glamour in the
90s,” he said, to knowing nods and titters from the room.

This prompted Byron’s swipe at the term “business journalism.”
It’s just journalism, he said.



Carl Sullivan (csullivan@editorandpublisher.com) is the editor of E&P Online.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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