Every dumb thing I know about the economy, I got from the television

If, like me, you followed Jon Stewart’s recent defeathering, skewering, and roasting of bulbous blabbermouth, Jim Cramer, with unrepentant delight, then I’m sure you would just love to see Stewart tongue-lash a few more of these cable television tunaheads. Starting with Chris Hansen, who’s graduated from lusting after teen girls to lusting after bankers.

As Uberwortsturmer Brad DeLong likes to tell us hourly in his blog, the media in this country has been mailing in a staggeringly poor job in accurately and intelligently reporting the economics of the downturn and its consequences. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. Professor DeLong has whittled away a lifetime studying these issues, but journalists and teleprompter readers aren’t exactly famous for their PhDs.

But nowhere has the media failed its audience more seriously than broadcast and cable news. In my opinion, if you haven’t ripped the cable out of your home and tossed your TV out, the sorry state of television news reporting in the face of the biggest and most complex economic news story of the century (not an exaggeration — the century is only nine years old — or eight, depending on where you start counting) should be the trigger.

I can certainly spend a few happy hours flogging newscasters and opinion-sellers, but they aren’t necessarily the problem. The problem is formal. The entire format of television reporting does not allow for anything other than distortions and misunderstandings. And that’s affecting how consumers, business owners, entrepreneurs, and employees think about what’s going on — and they end up holding back rather than surging forward.

You have to admit that the normal C Major register in which business/economics reporting is done has become not only different, but more chromatic. We routinely hear about things like derivatives, credit swaps, hedging, securitization, and Keynesian economics as if the news had always been filled with these rich and wonderful things. As Keith Oelbermann said on a recent broadcast of Countdown: “We’ve all been forced to understand the economy more than we did before.”

But the genre itself means that “understanding” takes a back seat to “form.” In fact, the back seat is so back back back that it’s not even in the same car. So I offer up a humble appraisal of the news-telling form and why it’s the wrong vessel for something as complex and as important as the state of our current economy and business world.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but on television it’s brain-death.
I recently saw a Fox News discussion “analyzing” Obama’s economic news conference where Jon Scott, as moderator, instructed the panelists to open with a “letter grade, not a sentence, a letter grade.” And this letter grade means what, exactly? When Shakespeare put the words, “brevity is the soul of wit,” in Polonius’s mouth, he meant them to be a laugh-out-loud commentary on Polonius’s logorrhea. But Shakespeare himself was highly trained in the art of the epigram, in which a whole lot of thinking and wisdom is compressed into a very tiny space, like, “To be or not to be.” However, for television newscasters and commentators, brevity almost always means collapsing detailed and difficult material into a subjective impression, like Jon Scott’s “letter grade.” Impressions are neither wit nor wisdom. And they tell you absolutely nothing about the economy, the banking system, credit, taxes, the virtues and vices of economic stimulus, health care reform, credit derivatives, government budgets, bonuses, job losses, or anything else. But that’s what the talking heads on TV specialize in.

On television news, an inch is a mile, an ounce a ton, and a second a year.
This is purely a formal quality of news reporting on television (and print to a lesser degree), but news narratives are all about creating interest, so, like all good dramatists, the folks writing it make sure nothing happens by degrees. Events are always dramatically large or dramatically threatening. Housing starts “surge” and the stock market “plummets” (here’s a fun game — start talking about your sex life the way cable news talks about the economy and, whoo-boy, the fun you’ll have!) Breaking events aren’t “risks,” they’re “threats.” And even if a news-goo-cast can avoid inflammatory language, the reporting itself is meant to dramatize and, thus, to amplify. So when commentators and opinion-pushers rush headlong into the catastrophic, apocalyptic, melodramatic, and messianic in their “analysis” (even Nobel-winning economists like Paul Krugman are finding the apocalyptic to be their metier-du-jour when talking to the hoi polloi), it makes sense to all of us out there in news-consumer land. The pump has been primed by the reporting itself.

Ideas are WWF wrestlers and it’s time to rrrrrrrrrrumble on our news show!
Nobody loves a fight more than TV producers. And when it comes to ideas of any kind — especially political and economic ones — television producers turn to the WWF for their model, not to something more appropriate, like, say, reasoned debate. The average expert “discussion” on CNN, Fox, CNBC, MSNBC, or other WWF news stations is usually only a step or two shy of the chair-tossing, you-slept-with-my-mom cuss-a-thon on Jerry Springer or Montel Williams. It’s about pundits knocking each other into next Tuesday rather than, say, really listening and responding to one another. So the actual complexity — and the fact that the real truth lies somewhere between opposing positions — gets lost in a puerile pissing contest of points and counter-points. The real model for getting at understanding is not point-counterpoint (invented by that pioneer of superficial television journalism, 60 Minutes), but thesis-counterthesis-synthesis. It’s that last step — synthesis — that discovers understanding in complex and uncertain issues like the nature of the economic downturn, the state of national banking, the behavior of markets, the management of risk, and the dynamics of regulation.

Nothing lies like a number.
You know the old joke, “How do you know a [Republican, Democrat, producer, salesperson, etc] is lying?” “Because their lips are moving.” Well here’s one you can take to the bank: whenever you hear a commentator or pundit using a number, they’re lying to you. Numbers make the best lies because more often than not they are true. And even when not true, a “number” has the force and gravity of a “fact.” But even though numbers can be true, they never tell the truth if a) they lack context, b) they lack relativity, or c) they’re produced by statistical or probability functions, like averages or percents. Almost every number in TV news land comes blissfully free of any context and has, as a result, almost no meaning whatsoever. Let me give you an example. AIG gave out $165 million dollars in bonuses, which produced the national equivalent of a pitchfork mob in an old Universal horror flick. But the numbers were missing context. Who got those bonuses? The bad guys who caused all the problems? Or the good guys who were fixing it (and making it possible to repay the taxpayer bailout)? As a number without context, this allowed opinion-mongers to blast out their bile about the greedy people who created the mess. Here’s another example: conservative commentators jumped all over the stimulus plan for millions of dollars in “wasteful spending,” picking out such gems as $2 million to renovate the Washington plaza. But this was $2 million in an EIGHT HUNDRED BILLION DOLLAR bill (the capital letters are for emphasis); so these commentators were painting the entire bill as wasteful based on finding one one-hundredth of a percent of the bill as wasteful. Relativity matters in giving form and meaning to numbers. And don’t get me started on the garbage you hear when newscasters and pundits throw out higher order functions like “average” or “probability.” If you ever hear the word “average” followed by some number on TV, don’t believe it. And if it’s a survey percentage, cover your ears! Don’t let it in!

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2 Responses to “Every dumb thing I know about the economy, I got from the television”

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  1. [...] (”Everybody’s Business,” Hollywood Reporter, April 16) For those who didn’t follow the feud between Cramer and Stewart, the elevator speech goes like this: perhaps it’s time for financial TV news to stop acting like clowns and entertainers and actually start reporting the news. If you want to know what I really think, read my blog on how every stupid thing I know about the economy I got from the TV. [...]


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