In fact, The Wall Street Journal’s survival and ultimate business-news dominance can be traced directly to a decision in the early 1940s by its brilliant chief, Bernard Kilgore, to radically transform and broaden the very definition of business news. Kilgore threw out all manner of business-news conventions: including the inverted pyramid, the jargon, and, most important, the idea that business news had to be geared to insiders (“There are a hell of a lot more depositors than there are bankers,” as he once put it). He created, in essence, a storytelling factory, capable of cranking out two long-form stories a day, plus the popular, quirky page-one feature known as the A-hed. He had a high-enough opinion of readers to believe that they would appreciate depth and narrative, as long as both were done well. His paper would become one of the journalism success stories of the second half of the twentieth century.
Much of business-press history since Kilgore has been one long struggle—sometimes successful—to transcend its roots as a servant to markets, and to become, in addition, a watchdog over them. The list of misbehaving industries exposed in investigations and analyses over the years by the business press—tobacco; auto; liquor; chicken plants; medical devices; even, once in a while, sort of, Wall Street—is long and impressive. Nonbusiness institutions, too, like government and unions, have come under business-press scrutiny.
Yet all along, investor-oriented news had the upper hand, understandably. The scholar James W. Carey memorably called “the public” the “god term” of American journalism. In business journalism, the god term, or at least one of them, is “investors.” It views protecting investors, particularly small investors, as central to its mission.
As it should. But here’s the problem: the interests of investors, even small ones, should not be confused with the public interest, which is much larger and, by definition, more important.
Business-news organizations often conflate these missions, leading to significant conceptual confusion, not to mention misunderstandings like the one that broke out between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer. Cramer believes he is looking out for investor interests, particularly the little guy, the retail investor. Maybe. But even if he is, as Stewart pointed out, those interests may have little to do with the public interest.
For example: during the mortgage bubble, no one was happier about bank behavior than bank investors, retail or otherwise. In 2005, Citigroup posted net income of, wait for it, $25 billion, one of the highest public-company profits in absolute terms in US history. The reality distortion was so great, and the investor perspective so mesmerizing, that Fortune would ruminate in 2007 that Citi’s Charles Prince was in trouble because of the company’s “less-than-stellar” earnings in 2006—a mere $21 billion. As we all know now, such profits were tied to behavior by the banks—predatory lending turned into toxic debt—that would end in catastrophe.
Given the Savings and Loan Wreck, the Tech Wreck, and, most especially, the Mortgage Wreck, one could argue that investor-oriented business news doesn’t help investors much either. And I would, to a point, agree. But it should at least be clear that investor-oriented news—no matter how well executed—is not the same as public-interest business reporting. If we do nothing else, let’s get that straight.
I would argue further that CNBC-ized reporting—granular, hurried, insider-dependent, and riveted on the (short-term) needs of investors—should be thought of less as coverage of the financial system than an extension of it.
In 1995, around the same time Lipin assumed the M&A beat, another pivotal moment in the evolution of business news came when the New York Stock Exchange, for the first time, allowed a journalist to report live from the exchange floor. Maria Bartiromo, a Brooklyn native, had worked for Lou Dobbs on CNN’s MoneyLine when she was hired away by Roger Ailes, the Republican political consultant-turned TV executive, who put her on the air at CNBC. The deal with the NYSE came two years later. The pretty, well-coiffed, twenty-seven-year-old reporter presented an arresting TV image: equipped with headset and clipboard, she stood on a busy floor amid bristling technology and milling traders. Occasionally brushed and jostled, she stood her ground, coolly rattling off information—analysts’ calls, earnings estimates, company news—with an air of steely competence and a hint of vulnerability. Sex, power, money—a heady brew in a single frame. The combination was not lost on New York’s tabloids, which dubbed her the “Money Honey.”
Like Lipin, Bartiromo was unknown at the time, and so, for that matter, was her network. But something was changing in the culture.