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.
As recently as the 1950s, the very words “Wall Street” carried such negative and parochial associations that Kilgore, the Journal’s chief, more than once considered changing the paper’s name (World’s Work and Financial America were kicked around and, thankfully, discarded). But by the 1980s, middle-class Americans were moving into the stock market, driven by many factors: 1970s-era inflation, which outstripped savings-account interest rates; the abolition of fixed-rate commissions in 1975, which lowered the cost of trading; the bull market that began in 1982; the marketing prowess of Fidelity and its ilk. The percentage of Americans who held stocks jumped, from 13 percent in 1980 to 32 percent in 1989.
By 1994, Joseph Nocera could write A Piece of the Action: How the Middle Class Joined the Money Class, which declared that the America middle class had pushed aside elites to join in the stock market:
The financial markets were once the province of the wealthy, and they’re not anymore; they belong to all of us. We’ve finally gotten a piece of the action. If we have to pay attention now, if we have to spend a little time learning about which financial instruments make sense for us and which ones don’t, that seems to me an acceptable price to pay. Democracy always comes at some price. Even financial democracy.