Financial Journalism’s Glaring Blind Spot is Objectivity
When it comes to publicly discussing journalism’s ability to be objective, all shades of the political spectrum have their opinions.
However, financial journalism has traditionally been considered more objective, mainly because it relies on financial data, market statistics, audited company balance sheets and information contained in legal vetted annual reports and press releases.
But that was in the old days.
Financial journalism today, in all of its varied forms–web, TV, print, newsletters–is a big and profitable business, mainly because its advertisers are among the most recession-resistant industries in the nation. Also, as the number or retirees grows and more people become focused on retirement, savings and all things financial, accompanied by the lost wealth that occurred in the 2008 recession and stagnant real wages, financial journalism is used as a source of getting financial-market information and advice.
But for professional financial reporters in all of their capacities–as anchors, editors, reporters, market analysts and commentators–the ability to be objective is a paramount concern. And for the most part, reporting on company events, market gyrations, earnings and new products is pretty straightforward journalism.
But for some reporters and editors, the ability to be objective remains elusive, whether consciously or because of the way reporters are trained and enculturated into their respective employer news organizations.
Not Ready for a Socialist President, But Ready for a Corporate Mogul
A recent case in point happened today when Bloomberg TV anchorwoman Stephanie Ruhle, said that “America is not ready for a socialist president” when referring to Democratic presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) After she made the statement, she said something to the effect “Yes, I just said that,” as if to emphasize her point, state some universal truth or say on-air this is what she and others on her network think about a socialist candidate for president.
While Ruhle made her comments just before leading into a commercial break, it was not a throwaway line. The idea that American is not ready for a socialist candidate is widely said in the media, but it also ignores the fact the Sanders is tremendously popular because of his long-held beliefs about Wall Street’s fraudulent practices and politics that favor, among other things, unequal economic access and social and legal justice.
Ruhle’s comments also reflect her personal beliefs, which are fine, but in journalism school, personal beliefs do not become part of the story unless they are consciously and intentionally inserted into a story by manipulating the facts to some degree. If they are personal opinion, they are freely available as commentaries or editorials. That’s basic traditional journalism.
But Ruhle is no reporter. She is a Bloomberg TV anchor, so maybe her opinion and that of many others at FOX and CNBC, to name a few outlets, reflect the fact that some financial reporters today are blatantly and blindly pro-corporate and have consciously or sub-consciously adopted all of the beliefs buttressing modern global corporate and Wall Street philosophies. These would include anti-regulation, anti-environmentalism, blindly touting the benefits of monetarism, the supremacy of the markets, the myopic focus on what benefits institutional investors, promoting the mysticism of hedge funds, the proven-truths of the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics and freely misquoting Adam Smith on his view about “free-markets.”
These are some broad and absolutist assumptions and in journalistic practice, they taint many forms of coverage, including discussions about the economic crisis in Greece (it was due to years of profligate spending), the pro-austerity mandates issued by the World Bank and IMF, causes of the 2008 recession (irresponsible home borrowers), global warming (not due to humans) , major financial scandals (the multi-bank, multi-trillion dollar scam to rig the LIBOR rate had no victims worldwide, according to CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow.), and even who is qualified to run for president.
If you can’t present the facts in an unbiased way, this constitutes a new form of journalism.
This blatantly, but unacknowledged pro-corporate slant also works its way into the very popular and time-consuming discussions about economics and the markets. While there are many economists to choose from, who all have opinions that are difficult to verify (this is why Harry Truman said: “Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, ‘On the one hand, on the other.’”), financial journalism outlets would be very hard pressed to list the last time they interviewed an economist who was a declared socialist or Marxist. Certainly, their opinions would be as valid as any corporate economist, yet their views are no where to be found in any round table discussion. (It might help if more financial journalists knew that a colleague of John Maynard Keynes, who most non-ideological economic and financial reporters would acknowledge as being a major figure of the dismal science in the 20th century, was the respected Marxist economist Joan Robinson (1903-1983).
Today, there are few socialist and Marxist economists mainly because it is not an economic philosophy that is being taught in the major business schools. One reason may be that corporate America would not hire an economist with those views, so since that job market is so limited, there is no need to teach non-pro-corporate economic theory. Another possible reason is that a socialist economist could not make investment recommendations or work hand-in-glove with investment bankers. Still, there are many other academic disciplines with weak job prospects that are listed in university course catalogues, so why not one on alternative economic theories?
The pro-corporate prejudice also is evident in the presidential campaign. Too many voters think it is natural to have a billionaire run for president, even if they have no or modest political experience. Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Carly Fiorina, Ross Perot are beneficiaries of corporate socialism or tax breaks courtesy of the U.S. government, are all somehow considered natural heirs to the presidency. Never mind that few of them could agree on a definition of socialism other than the fact that it would be anything that interferes with the “free market” or “market forces.” (If Americans want to see a sad example of how a corporate mogul runs a nation, look at ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.)
It’s Tough to be Objective
This same anti-corporate prejudice trickles into the corporate media, which often has strong ties to business schools and major financial institutions. It’s better to play along with the dominant prejudice than challenge it. This may explain why the hiring process formally and then informally rejected applicants from certain minority groups over the last 60 or so years. It also explains the well-documented social enculturation process that occurs when new people enter any new company or industry.
This is really nothing new, since it gets into the discussion about the true nature of objectivity and whether any publicly observable event can be conveyed from human to human without injecting any form of new interpretation. This is the philosophy of phenomenology, which deals with whether it was even possible to present all things as themselves.
Two notable exceptions extolling the pursuit of objectivity are the professions of law and journalism. These professions seek to hold themselves to higher standards where individual prosecutors, law enforcement and reporters bracket their individual human prejudices to acknowledge their role as providing the most unbiased and objective interpretation possible about the social and scientific events they were presenting.
This is more difficult today, but it is possible to reject, ignore or marginalize those few reporters who express anti-corporate beliefs, even if they are well-documented, verifiable and can be collaborated by multiple sources. That is, those anti-corporate beliefs and substantiating stories can meet all the high standards of traditional journalism, but would never make it on the air or into print in certain news organizations.
Corporate Shills or Objective Reporters?
So who are the financial commentators who are most blindly pro-corporate today? It could be a longer list, but the most obvious are on TV (MSNBC, CNBC, FOX) and are Larry Kudlow, Stuart Varney, Neil Cavutto, Joe Kernen, Steve Liesman, and Rick Santelli. I’m sure they are all nice people, but they and their editor-producers should run more stories that show the dark sides of being in business today.
This could easily include stories about the largest corporations that don’t pay taxes, corporations that are repeat offenders in environmental courts or are fined by the SEC for violating customer regulations, or how corporate lobbying money is spent to pass on anti-customer regulations and laws. This blindly pro-corporate position also explains why shows that tout entrepreneurism and free market capitalism (which global corporations have abhorred sine the Progressive era at the start of the 19th Century) are on the air today. And even though the average salary in the U.S. today is $43,623, workers can always just start a business or invent the next-new-thing. But don’t forget that the failure rate for new small businesses is 90% after one year, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Or, as some little-known past Republican presidential candidate said: “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”
Since these legitimate and verifiable stories about errant corporatism would not threaten the financial or political stability of media outlets, why are they not disseminated? Is it because editors and producers think myopic, repeated discussions about the same old topics are easy to produce or because their audience is incapable of handling different ideas? It’s certainly not because these stories do not exist. The possible answers are that editor-producers don’t think they are important, they would irritate advertisers or the front office would not like them. In any case, they all amount to self-censorship, which makes for wimpy journalism and a weak democracy.
If the financial media seriously took a more fair and balanced approach towards corporations, that practice would help bridge the gap between the blatantly pro-corporate financial media and the groundswell of populism from both political progressives and conservatives. This populism (which itself has become a pejorative term, along with “community organizer,” “socialist” and “environmentalist”) says the market economy has failed to deliver on its promises, that the interests of U.S. corporations are not aligned with U.S. citizens, and that unbridled, unrepentant corporate capitalism has some glaring flaws that could be remedied by some form of socialist solution.
After all, these are objective facts. And if you can’t present the facts in an unbiased way, this constitutes a new form of journalism.