You would have thought news was slow on Wall Street last week, when the hottest item on the ticker was that television personality Maria Bartiromo was jumping from CNBC, her onscreen home for two decades, to the Fox Business Channel.
Financial and media pundits struggled to place the event in cosmic context. Michael Wolff of the Guardian called it a "tectonic shift," which was a bit of an overstatement even for him, though it's possible he was being facetious. (It's sometimes hard to tell.)
What was notable in all the turbocharged media coverage was how Bartiromo's journalistic chops were described. Virtually every article focused on one particular career achievement: her having been the first reporter to broadcast from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Bartiromo has spoken of the physical challenges of this breakthrough, in which she was bodily knocked about by brokers rushing from one place to another on what was then a very frenetic, crowded trading floor. (It's less so now, what with electronic trading having taken over the stock market.) Her participation in what was essentially a publicity stunt not only for the Big Board but her employer was presented as tantamount to penetrating a rebel compound in Southern Sudan and reporting under fire from the front.
This is not to say that Bartiromo isn't talented as, well, television talent. Projecting coolness and grace day in and day out from a broadcast studio or booth, as she does, requires genuine skill. But Bartiromo's career does point to some truths about CNBC and its role in financial journalism, such as it is, that are worth pondering.
First and most important, CNBC isn't really a business news service for the average investor, though that's how it pitches itself. It is and always has been a service for traders, who are nothing like investors. Traders have very short investing horizons, have to move fast, and often don't make their decisions on corporate fundamentals like balance sheets, cash flow and the potential for profit or loss.
That's something that Jon Stewart got fundamentally wrong in his celebrated takedown of CNBC and its star personality Jim Cramer back in 2009. Stewart ridiculed CNBC for recommending that viewers buy, say, Bear Stearns stock one day and reversing its recommendation a few weeks later. What he didn't understand was that for investors this is terrible advice, but for traders it's perfectly rational.
That should have been the response delivered by Cramer when he appeared on Stewart's "Daily Show" -- but by then CNBC itself had probably forgotten that its real audience was traders. Still, it gives the game away by devoting so much attention during the day to market technicians, who chart stock movements searching for patterns. Investors with longtime horizons don't bother with such alchemy. But it's why the one CNBC show I find tolerable is its afternoon program "Fast Money" -- it features a daily panel of traders who admit they're traders and talk unabashedly about how they've traded the day's events.
The other issue with CNBC, and the one more relevant to Maria Bartiromo's career, is the extent that it's been co-opted by the corporate community. "Co-opted" may be the wrong term -- CNBC may never have been independent or objective in the traditional journalistic sense. In recent years, however, the network certainly seems to have abandoned almost all pretense of aggressive journalism.
The best example of this may be Bartiromo's appearance with Alex Pareene of Salon.com, who should win the prize as the reporter least likely to be featured on a CNBC segment. Pareene was brought on to defend his argument that Jamie Dimon should be fired as JPMorgan's chairman and chief executive, given the record of corruption he's presided over at the big bank. (We've covered that issue here and here.) Openly scandalized at the very suggestion, Bartiromo scoffed at evidence of Morgan's corruption, even though the bank has acknowledged much of it in public documents and its own annual reports.
This isn't the behavior of a financial journalist. It's the behavior of a television interviewer whose trick for snagging interviews with big-name CEOs and global investment gurus is the guarantee that she'll always take them at their own level of self-esteem.
Bartiromo is a master (mistress?) of lobbing soft-balls at self-important targets. But that's exactly what diminishes CNBC's value as a news source, except for breaking events that can be reduced to the crawl at the bottom of the screen -- the reason most TVs tuned to CNBC during the market day have their sound turned off is that the blather from anchors often isn't worth hearing. For a news channel like CNBC, a personality like Bartiromo is a necessary adornment. Her efforts at communicating anything that resembles trenchant analysis are often risible; consider this appearance last year on Tavis Smiley's PBS program, in which her delivery was a combination of incoherence and received wisdom.
But you don't turn to Maria Bartiromo for the sort of journalism that's defined as finding out things your sources don't want you to know, any more than her broadcasting from the NYSE floor was something the Big Board really didn't want to happen.
At Fox Business Channel, she'll be able to puff up her CEO interview subjects even more openly than she could at CNBC, and repeat big business's positions on taxation and regulation with even greater abandon, because they're openly shared by her new employers. But if you're an investor or just an ordinary American looking for news you can use about what's happening in the business world, you won't get it from either channel.