the audit

Rise Above, CNBC’s move into advocacy

Corporate America's house organ starts an anti-political political campaign
November 20, 2012

Any time you see Wall Street CEOs and CNBC campaigning for what they call the common good, it’s worth raising an eyebrow or two.

So it is with CNBC’s “Rise Above” crusade, which has blanketed its airwaves and adorned its lapels since the day after the election with pleas for a solution to the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

You’ll note that CNBC has not Risen Above for the common good on issues like stimulating a depressed economy, ameliorating the housing catastrophe, or prosecuting its Wall Street sources/dinner partners for the subprime fiasco. But make no mistake: even if it had, it would have been stepping outside the boundaries of traditional American journalism practice into political advocacy. And that’s precisely what it’s doing here, at further cost to its credibility as a mainstream news organization instead of some HD version of Wall Street CCTV.

The big question: Why is a news organization running what’s effectively a political campaign for Simpson-Bowles, complete with thirty-second spots and campaign buttons? Look, kids. You can get your very own Rise Above pin, wrapped in the flag, just like your favorite business-news personalities! Roger Ailes himself must blush at this kind of grandstanding, but I have a hard time believing the business class and CNBC would be so worked up over this austerity program if it weren’t for the major tax increases contained therein.

The day after the election, Joe Kernen read off the prompter, with all the enthusiasm of a TASS newscaster, “We are ‘Rising Above’ the partisan rhetoric to find a solution for the fiscal cliff.”

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Five minutes later and in the same segment, Kernen claimed that Obama’s reelection wasn’t really a mandate for raising taxes on the well off. Way to Rise Above there, Joe!

Jim Cramer called Rise Above “The most important issue of this time,” which would sound profound and stuff if we could read that without imaginary honks and whistles going off.

CNBC thinks it can get around the newsroom-as-advocate problem by asserting that it’s only pushing a kind of starched-shirted patriot’s common sense wrapped in insipid branding.

Here’s editor Nik Deogun explaining the campaign:

The election is over, but the American economy will only be unleashed if we avoid the fiscal cliff, pare our deficit and rise above partisan politics. On this point, nearly every business leader and investor who appears on CNBC has been consistent: The status quo leads to economic stagnation or worse; solutions could release powerful forces that propel the nation out of its post-recessionary funk.

Politics and politicians can solve this crisis but they are now in the way. For a deal to get done, we must rise above partisan bickering. For a deal to get done, they must move the public toward some form of sacrifice. That’s always been the spirit of America.

You can see the problem here: CNBC is mobilizing because the capital class is near unanimous about something. What do the union leaders or the academic economists have to say? Hey Nik, Let some air into that bubble. It’s starting to smell like Clive Christian No. 1 in there.

CNBC’s own promo furthers the echo chamber impression, featuring Maria Bartiromo saying, “CEO after CEO tells us we will go back into a recession if this is not dealt with.” Bartiromo was last seen here sandbagging Eliot Spitzer, who was disgraced in a prostitution scandal, while giving the utmost deference to AIG CEO Hank Greenberg, who was disgraced in an accounting fraud scandal—and that interview was no outlier, as I noted in that post. I wonder what Spitzer thinks, but CNBC doesn’t.

Come to think of it, I wonder what a leading economist like, say, Paul Krugman has to say about the issue. Despite being vindicated time and again in this crisis, Krugman is Keynesian kryptonite to the Joe Kernens and Michelle Caruso-Cabreras of CNBC land—a unicorn, even.

But as Krugman has said for years now, contra CNBC, there is no fiscal crisis. If there were, the Treasury would not be able to borrow at 1.57 percent, as it did yesterday, near all-time lows and below the current rate of inflation (meaning investors are paying Uncle Sam to borrow their money). Krugman, among many others, is vehemently opposed to Simpson-Bowles, which is a deficit plan that would put an artificial cap on government revenue and reduce tax rates on the rich by 12 percentage points.

The advocacy of a certain type of Very Serious (to cop a Krugmanism) point of view isn’t the only problem with the Rise Above nonsense. It’s the reporting—poor to the point of misleading— on what the “fiscal cliff” is. You’d think if you were going to jeopardize what’s left of your journalistic credibility with a crusade that you’d do a better job explaining the issue.

First, the terminology. The term “fiscal cliff” is deeply misleading and a broader media failure in its own right (our Greg Marx has a good explainer on the nomenclature). It’s more like a fiscal slope or better yet austerity gridlock. The problem is that if no agreement is reached, current law will slash the deficit by sharply raising taxes and gutting spending.

If Obama and Boehner don’t reach an agreement by December 31, the economy will not plunge into a precipice on January 1. Here we’ll turn to no less an authority on business and investing than Warren E. Buffett, who says, “The fact they can’t get along for the month of January is not going to torpedo the economy.” Reuters notes that the tax increases and spending cuts wouldn’t be implemented for months.

But CNBC has no qualms about “fiscal cliff,” which it uses without context.

And this gets to another problem with Rise Above: Does anyone think the two sides weren’t going to hammer out some agreement to avoid $720 billion in new taxes and spending cuts by the end of next year but for the self-righteous protestations of talking heads on CNBC?

Last but not least is the hypocrisy of CNBC in talking about Rising Above politics. This is the network, after all, that kicked off the Tea Party, an austerity push that was one of the more damaging political movements in recent memory. With no apparent irony, CNBC features Rick Santelli himself in its ad, urging politicians “to reach across the aisle,” while looking angry as ever:

Reach across the aisle, losers!

This is the network that employs Larry “Goldilocks” Kudlow, whose record of being appallingly wrong is rivaled only by his record of ideological rigidity, whose lesson for Republicans three days after the election, was “Don’t Go Wobbly, GOP.” Rise Above—the re-elected president of the United States!

But CNBC is working hard to appear even-handed on its anti-politics campaign:

With the American economy held hostage by politicians from both parties, CNBC is launching a network-wide initiative to call attention to the fiscal crisis.

Note the last two words there: “fiscal cliff” has become “fiscal crisis” and fiscal crisis is a synonym for deficit spending.

But the “both parties” formulation is false equivalence. It’s simple: You can’t have meaningful medium to long-term deficit reduction without raising taxes, Obama and the Democrats have cut trillions of dollars in spending, and Republicans have refused to raise taxes. Most non-blowhards already know this—A poll by CNBC’s better half, NBC News, found that Americans say Republicans get the blame for any standoff by 53-29 compared to Obama—why doesn’t CNBC agree?

It’s just not CNBC’s job, institutionally, to campaign for anything. Cover the news, as they say, don’t become it.

Further reading:

CNBC: kid gloves for bankers, boxing gloves for bank critics. Interviews with Barofsky, Spitzer, and Krugman underscore the network’s capture.

Waiting for CNBC. A tragicomedy in one long act.

CNBC Editor: The People Are Revolting! Rick Santelli plays Mel Brooks playing Louis XVI.

A Zombie Lie Is Born. CNBC’s false welfare-state story spreads far and wide.

Becky Quick Thinks the Fed Is Too Focused on Jobs. That makes no sense historically or in the current context.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.