A page-one item on February 3, 1905, under the headline: “United States Leather,” begins this way: “There is authority for saying that a majority of the capital stock of the US Leather Co. has been deposited with the Central Trust Co. for the purposes of carrying out the proposed reorganization plan.” And here’s a page-one headline from May 28, 1906:
Northwest Crops: Favorable Conditions Except in Red River Valley—Discouraging News from Iowa and Missouri
It’s not that the early business press opposed muckraking or public-interest reporting. As I’ve noted in CJR’s pages before (“Confidence Game,” November/December 2011), the fledgling Wall Street Journal covered parts of Ida Tarbell’s monumental McClure’s series on the Standard Oil monopoly, and, sometimes, editorialized in support of it. But it took a narrow view of its journalistic mandate. After a Tarbell installment that offered evidence that Standard had conspired with railroads to cut competing refiners from markets, for instance, the Journal called on Tarbell to present more evidence and declined to do its own reporting:
We shall not attempt to follow her in this field of inquiry. It is a field which the United States Government, through its Bureau of Corporations, has already entered. If the Standard Oil Company has entered into a conspiracy in restraint of trade in Kansas, the Bureau of Corporations ought to discover the fact….
It was only much later that the business press took on a more public-interest-oriented mission as well. And it was business news’s ability to achieve—finally—some distance from the institutions it covers that allowed it to broaden its appeal to large segments of the middle class after World War II. Scholar Andrew Yarrow chalks up the metamorphosis to the postwar expansion of the American middle class and the creation of a managerial class. The business press knew a new market when it saw one, and broadened its scope to serve it.
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.