An Open Letter To The Financial Media

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By 1-2 and Marla Singer


It can hardly have escaped your notice that a battle of epic proportions, simmering at the fringes for months, was this very week finally joined.  Pursuing what can only be termed a "mobius strip news cycle" strategy, certain "financial news" programs have taken to throwing those pesky "parasitic" bloggers to the proverbial wolves at every opportunity. Given the tenor of discourse and the ad hominem pursuits of our mainstream colleagues, conveniently beamed right into our offices from the from the otherwise warming glow of our LCD panels, we at Zero IntelligenceHedge welcome the opportunity to contribute to the discussion- not, mind you, because our feelings are hurt (you can’t hurt something that doesn’t bleed), but rather because our appraisal of these attacks puts them on par with the baseless ramblings of the Tourette's-afflicted homeless guy who loiters about outside our offices.  Pure stream of consciousness, laden with panic and paranoia, and characterized more by shrill tone and volume than a respectable signal to noise ratio.  Desperate, and desperately ill.

Not so long ago, the dual-class share structure of newspapers was a bedrock principle of media corporate governance.  Insulating- the argument went- the paper from the whims of the public was necessary to the independence of the Fourth Estate (can't have pesky shareholders dictating sacrosanct editorial policy, after all).  Those days are over.  This change is neither the result of some maverick revolt in corporate governance, nor is it the consequence of a dramatic awakening by institutional holders (who would require close-order thermonuclear detonations to rouse).  It is merely the sad result of the most abject and base squandering of a valuable estate since the Manor of Marr fell into the bloodsucking clutches of early 19th century English probate.

The Fourth Estate has spent and leveraged its reputation capital in keeping with the finest traditions of 21st century investment banking.  As a consequence, these age-old institutions are quickly for the way of their banking parallels: Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. We are actually quite fortunate to witness the historic dying gasps of old media, painfully resisting the very same creative destruction they utilized to, temporarily, supplant town criers, printed pulp, Valueline and teletype as primary sources of daily news-flow. When the future of no lesser institution than the New York Times seems
uncertain, and Tribune's only real valued asset is a baseball team (and
the Chicago Cubs at that) it becomes difficult to go long old media
brands. However, like all dying industries, instead of changing their own ways they choose to attack the new guardians of the estate: New Media.  This is not to say "new media" is perfect, far from it.  It does, however, have the virtue of being effective.  Too effective, in fact, if you ask certain networks.  Is it any wonder that we are now in the midst of new "circulation wars" or that the same "yellow journalism" has once again become en vogue?  Today, however, we call them "click through rates" and "hard hitting programming."  ("Hard hitting" referring primarily to the effect the carefully selected anchors have on viewers of the opposite sex- and so it has been since Arthur "The Desert Fox" Kent went to the sandbox for CNN.)

It is easy to point fingers, to try to shift blame for what is, at the core, a lack of adaptability.  Viewed from a distance, that mainstream media, burdened by its wholesale dependence on personality, would be threatened by anonymous speech is totally unsurprising.  How old exactly is the phrase "media personality" after all?  How alien must it be to veterans of the business that media without the personality might appeal?  How difficult it must be to fight in a ring with someone who doesn't play by the rules, and when there is no ammunition for the only weapons available, the personal attack and the dirt-digger?  If the primary complaint is that we have yet to provide a photocopy of our driver's licenses, that is concerning.  With this in mind, Ladies and Gentlemen of the media, we would like to make a few points:

1.  Anonymous speech is not a crime.

You may or may not be aware that there is a long tradition of anonymous speech in the United States.  It did not begin here.  Not by a long shot.  In 509 BC Publius Valerius Publicola and colleagues transformed, with the help of extensive pamphleteering, the monarchy that ruled Rome into a republic by deposing and banishing Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.  (What a great anchor name that would make!)  The result was twofold.  First, the invention of the Roman title of "Consul."  Second, the beginning of the Roman Republic.  You may recognize "Publius Valerius Publicola," as the pen name later taken by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison in the form of "Publius," the pen name over which they wrote the Federalist Papers.  We shouldn't have to point out the import of these events.  If they escape you, may we recommend the World Book’s new age form, Wikipedia.  (Britannica is, as one might expect, as dead as parchment.)  All this is a long way of pointing out exactly what you are indicting when you belittle pseudonymity.  (As an aside, in sophisticated discourse, it pays to know the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity.)

Confusing identity with reputation is a common error made by the enemies of anonymity.  Do we respect the anchor of a well-known financial news channel (roll with us for a minute here) because of his Italian last name?  Or do we respect him because of his reputation for hard-hitting financial journalism?  Surely some embarrassing moments about his past might cause some snickering.  But this is identity, not reputation- certainly not professional reputation.  Is it relevant to the content of the news that another anchor on said channel got a wee-bit amorous in a taxi with a woman (or two) not his wife?  (Or a woman someone else's wife?)  Only insofar as that anchor makes his career about identity, that is personality, instead of reputation.  If he does that, he is fair game for all the snark and gossip he whorishly solicits.

Since we write under pseudonyms we have but one currency: the quality of our content, and the reputation built since we started writing it.  Readers will decide for themselves whether our content is informative and worthy of their time.  There is no cloak of personality in which we may hide.  Our professional "brands" are just as vulnerable as any reporter on any network.  Unless you are a Luddite of some kind we are easy to contact.  Contrast this with our experience with you. We have discovered, as it happens, that you never return our e-mails.  It is apparently beneath you.  Furthermore, owing to our lack of a highly leveraged, publicly held parent, we lack the traditional gatekeepers many personalities use to screen potential "bearers of bad newscorrection." Are there some bloggers out there who seek no more than to rake muck?  Of course, but the same can be said for any circle of journalists you may care to name.  Our writing is all we have (personality does not interest us) and so we strive to keep it accurate, informative, and interesting- just as any journalist would.  Does that mean we consider ourselves journalists?  What's in a name? Many of us are closer to op-ed writers.  Many of us are purely editors.  Some of us even fancy ourselves philosophers.  But, may i remind you, editorials are generally written by a “board” even more anonymous than ourselves- subject to no army of instant-gratification grammar Nazis, and rarely lowering themselves to so much as issue a correction.  Think anonymous writers are all scum?  Read the Economist some time.

As to the personal habits of various mainstream reporters, we are totally uninterested in these details.  They are only relevant where they expose the hypocritical tenor of someone who chides anonymous authors to reveal themselves and then hides behind a "no comment" when confronted with his or her own personality defects.

Attacking anonymity is the nexus of this misdirection error and an over-reliance on the media value of personality over content.  This must end.  We've said so long before mainstream media attacked us, not least in our manifesto.  Content is what is important here, and none of you seem to understand that.  You fall back to personality because it is your last and only hope.  We don't care to play along, thank you.  Why?

2.  Your unveiling motives are less than pure.

Demanding the unveiling of anonymous authors is often a pretense for opening the door to personal attacks.  We recognize that conflict makes for good prime time television.  We understand that producers seek to capitalize on this and that, for reasons obvious even to a first year psychology student, juicy personal attacks draw ratings.  Zero Hedge enjoyed a bit of personal experience in this vein when exposed to the high-pressure "are we doing this or what" come-on of a certain financial network producer.  We declined, prompting "the talent"'s attempt to savage us on-air (and our largest spike of web traffic theretofore).  Interesting as it will be in 20 years for sociologists to study, this is not journalism.

Ladies and Gentlemen, one-line zingers and contrived time limits designed to impale your hapless guests do not constitute "constructive conflict" worthy of the your interest in the Fourth Estate, which, incidentally, you do not own, but rather hold in trust on behalf of the citizenry.  Want to see real, purposeful conflict on television?  Try pulling some 5 or 10 year old archive tapes on the McLaughlin Group, or 1980s vintage runs of the British quiz show "Mastermind."  The latter was invented by Bill Wright, a former gunner in the Royal Air Force who based the premise of the show on his experience resisting interrogation by the Gestapo.  Do we need to point out that you are out of your league?  That was conflict television.  Mastermind itself is even purely entertainment (the British love to watch their fellows squirm).  Your efforts pale in comparison and, as it happens, your urge to entertain is entirely misplaced when mixed with "financial journalism."  We suggest you reflect seriously on this before you put the deci-split-screen up for the [n]th time.  Actually, we take it back.  Nothing better characterizes everything that is wrong with your approach than the deci-split-screen.  As you were.

In case it was not already clear, let us just be plain: we are not interested in your ad hominem drama.  We are not so in love with fame that we are prepared to subject ourselves to that kind of artifice in exchange for it.  We understand this worldview puzzles and frightens you, and that we must seem an opponent no easier to grasp than quantum mechanics (well we have a former physicist among us, so maybe that's a bad example).  Look back at real drama and notice that it never needed to be invented in the newsrooms of 1972.  Demanding our unveiling is an excuse.  An excuse wielded by those who have no content of value to offer.  Just to be clear: this means you.

3.  The era of personality-centric media needs to end- quickly, and (hopefully) painfully.

The fact that you thrive on the momentum of personality-centric reporting does not mean that we do, or that it is the right kind of reporting.  Your shrill cries of "coward" in the face of anonymous or pseudonymous authors somehow implies that narcissism is equivalent to bravery.  This is, in your case, self-serving.  And, frankly, we beg to differ with respect to your basic premise.

On the contrary, we think narcissism is cowardice.  Personality-centric reporting is the last resort of those who have no valuable content to offer on fading networks with waning delivery channels.  Edutainment is a mutation designed (poorly) to forestall total decline.  None of you seem to understand that the issue is content, not comment.

There was a time when the pinnacle of global discourse came from the newsroom at CBS.  When no self-respecting citizen who considered themselves informed would go long without the evening news.  What do we have now?  Can we not all recognize what a severe devolution this is?

When we have Dan Rather's 77 year old face on HDTV, and this program is called "Dan Rather Reports," (the focus on the personality of the host is almost daunting) can we not agree that something is wrong?  It is not that Dan Rather's majestic countenance is not comely (well, not only that) but that any countenance at all is a major portion of the visual offering.  People, HDTV is for football, not news.  If you have any doubt that this is so, consider how many HDTV reports of any weight emerged from Iran this month, or last.  Zero.  None.  Of course.  This was easily the most important foreign policy story of the year.  Where did the scoops come from?  Twitter and YouTube.  We don't claim Twitter and YouTube are the next revolution.  We think Twitter and YouTube are sort of lame.  It's just that they are somewhat less lame than your medium.  Stepping back for a moment, that is really quite sad.

Video killed the newsroom.  Stop trying to jump-start the corpse.

4.  You can't fight a dead model.  (They don't respond to the sleeper hold at all, and getting caught with one while trying is bad news.)

It is not our fault or our problem that your business model is dead.  We didn't kill it.  You did.  You killed it when you did a 16 minute expose on the business of porn.  You killed it when you stacked the anchor desk with stacked anchors.  You killed it when you started writing books for six-figure advances, and schmoozing for access to fill those books with juicy tidbits about (and dialogue from) senior executives on Wall Street.  You killed it when you hired an audio producer to dub in dramatic music in times of financial crisis.  You killed it when you started paying someone six-figures to create eye-catching graphics.  Every dollar you spent on this nonsense was a dollar you took away from the newsroom.  Is it any wonder that reporters at the Wall Street Journal are paid shameful trifles while "the talent" (for the unwashed, we mean the TV anchors) rival investment banking paychecks?

5.  Take it from us.  It's time to punt.

When you've gotten to the point where you are attacking online media in order to boost viewing of embedded video clips of your content, inventing fights with new media to boost ratings, when you are boosting online ad revenue this way, might not it be the time to just cut out the expensive cost center middlemen (we are looking at you- in the eye- stacked anchors) and move to online distribution entirely?  We've been watching quite carefully and we haven't seen a story above the 5th grade level out of you in over a year.  (Except, perhaps for the piece on porn, that was at 7th grade level for sure.)  Instead it seems clear that you have been reduced to calling us "morons" and "dickweeds."  (We can say "fuckhead" in our medium, how about you?)  We are sorry to tell you that the last decent movie John Hughes wrote was Uncle Buck.  (Some people cite Home Alone, which came out a year later, but we think this nonsense.)  That is to say, personal attacks, one-liners, snarky comedy and "zingers" were funnier in 1989.  It is now 2009, and no one is going to play "Don't You Forget About Me" while you walk away through the parking lot after work.  (That is unless your producer hangs speakers out the window.)  If you want to drop a zinger here and there, better make sure it is bracketed on both sides with some real content.  Stick to parody and satire.  Name calling only works for a while.

6.  Get out of the cycle of co-personality-dependence.

When your biggest ratings and embedded hit counts come from fights between the various gargantuan egos on your anchor desk it should tell you two things.  First, that your have become addicted to on-air sideshows.  Second, that you have hauled your audience down with you into the blackness of personality-dependence addiction.  They are so starved for something real that they cannot comprehend that there might be something better than watching someone scream and push buttons to produce canned sound effects, or call a fellow anchor an intellectual lightweight.  Of course, when you run out of material for staged, behind-the-scenes drama, we are the next easiest target.  We are shocked.  May we recommend something novel?  Investigate something other than your co-anchor.  How about fraud?  Groundbreaking, we know.

All our criticism aside for a moment, we recognize that in many ways it is not your fault.  A drowning institution grasps at anything that floats.  If we are discouraged by anything it is your inability to just swim on your own.  Perhaps it has been so long that you've forgotten how.  That's easy to fix.  Kick your legs.  Breathe.  Do a lap.  Trust us.  They get easier.  Meanwhile, we'll keep researching and writing.  See you for couple's swim!