The trend Nocera identified was only beginning. In 1994, Americans had indeed moved en masse into mutual funds, but kept nearly as much in bond and money funds as stock funds. But by the end of the 1990s, the public had $4 trillion in stock funds, compared to only $808 billion in bond funds and $1.6 trillion in money markets. At the turn of the twenty- first century, nearly half of all Americans owned shares in one form or another. Maggie Mahar, in Bull! A History of the Boom, 1982-1999 (published in 2003 and essentially a grim bookend to Nocera’s optimism), uses polling and other data to show that most middle- and lower-income Americans who owned stocks in 2001 only started buying them after 1996. Of households with financial assets of less than $25,000, an alarming 43 percent made their first stock purchase in 1999 or later—and almost certainly lost money.
While it is reasonable for the business press to have adapted to this changing investment landscape, its emphasis on the stock market was almost certainly overdone. According to a 2010 paper by Edward N. Wolff, a New York University economist, about half of American households indeed own stocks in some form, but only 18 percent owned shares directly as of 2007, and thus could conceivably benefit from CNBC-ized financial news. Only 22 percent of households owned stocks worth more than $25,000 in any form (including mutual funds or pension accounts), and stocks as a percentage of total household assets were only 16.8 percent. (Of course, stock market wealth was skewed toward the wealthiest 1 percent, which held nearly half of stocks and mutual-fund assets; the bottom 90 percent held 10.6 percent.) What’s more, global debt markets are roughly twice the size of the stock market, and, as Gillian Tett noted in her book, Fool’s Gold, they receive scant attention from the business press.
In any event, CNBC and its market-focused competitors rose to serve the growing ranks of amateur investors. Consciously modeled on ESPN’s SportsCenter, CNBC programming consisted of pre- and post-“game” reports, along with in-game interviews—the game, of course, was the trading day. Viewers got a sense of connectedness to the inner workings of the financial system. During trading hours, a ticker streamed price changes of shares and indices. CNBC has done some fine documentaries over the years, but they are hardly the main event.
These days, the ticker includes such esoterica as the spot price for West Texas Intermediate crude oil, a light crude refined mostly in the Midwest and Gulf states, as traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange, “WTI/NYMEX.” Here is news fragmentation carried to some postmodern extreme. But, really, it’s nothing more than messenger-boy journalism digitized: old wine in a new bottle.
As Howard Kurtz recounts in Fortune Tellers (2000), a major preoccupation of the network involved winning deal scoops and getting early word of Wall Street stock analysts’ buy-and-sell recommendations, a task at which Bartiromo proved particularly adept. The network played a big role in elevating a few analysts to star status—Goldman’s Abby Joseph Cohen, Merrill Lynch’s Henry Blodget, Prudential’s Ralph Acampora. “Abby says the market will go up; Ralph says the market will go down,” CNBC personality Ron Insana intoned in 1999, as quoted by Kurtz. “The tug-of-war of titans.”
In its own eyes, CNBC saw itself as a force for the democratization of finance. Its executives claimed their mission was to provide everyday people the same information as that available to professionals. By the end of the ’90s, as the tech-heavy NASDAQ stock index roared from 450 to more than 5,000, CNBC had attained an influence far beyond the size of its viewership, which has bounced around the 250,000 range for years, a fraction of the circulation of the Journal. Celebrities like Regis Philbin, Charles Barkley, and Andre Agassi declared themselves fans. Joey Ramone wrote a song about Bartiromo (“What’s happening with Intel? What’s happening with Amazon? I want to know … Maria Bartiromo”). Print journalists trooped to CNBC’s studios in New Jersey to proclaim its cultural ascendency. “The Revolution Will be Televised (on CNBC),” said Fast Company, in an 8,000-word story that called the network “the live feed of the new economy.”