Whiplash or vertigo — call it what you like. It's the feeling you get from watching cable news try to cover complicated stories. TV has always excelled at speed and emotion, but both at once can be a dangerous mix, as it was during the world financial crisis.
As Congress debated a $700 billion rescue plan in September, reporters turned into cheerleaders. CNN's senior business correspondent, Ali Velshi, warned that failure to pass the bill would backfire on consumers. "We've got to lubricate the credit markets," he preached, dismissing concerns that the measure would let Wall Street CEOs off the hook. The morning after the House voted down the first version of the plan, NBC's Andrea Mitchell expressed outrage that the two presidential candidates hadn't done more to get it approved. "I don't understand the lack of leadership all around," she told MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.
The fact that Mitchell was reporting the story at all was problematic, since she's married to Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. During his years in office, Mitchell was NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent, limiting the potential for conflict of interest. But this year she was given a regular anchor slot on MSNBC. That wasn't much of a problem until the credit crisis, which naturally raised questions about what went wrong on Greenspan's watch.
Instead of taking Mitchell off the economy story, NBC told the New York Times, decisions about her assignments would be made case by case. The day Greenspan admitted to Congress that he had erred by letting the markets police themselves, Mitchell was not on the air. But the next day she was back at the anchor desk, questioning an Obama adviser about financial policy while avoiding any mention of Greenspan's role. Can you say awkward?
If viewers tuned in to cable news for an explanation of the crisis or the ups and downs of the stock market, they didn't get it. Anchors nattered on about capitulation, LIBOR rates and limit downs without giving the audience the courtesy of defining the terms. And what you saw often conflicted with what you heard.
On a late October day when the Dow dropped more than 300 points, a Fox News banner flashed, "Stocks plunge on fears of recession," while a reporter said good news on home sales had stemmed losses on Wall Street. On CNN, international business correspondent Richard Quest told viewers they'd be fools not to invest overseas and then noted brightly that the market was up. The Dow had recovered from the day's low but was still down 303 points. That didn't stop anchor Kyra Phillips from chiming in, "Richard talks, it moves the markets!"
The breakneck pace of the coverage only added to viewers' confusion. "What does it mean?" CNN anchor Kiran Chetry asked Quest as the market prepared to open with Dow futures tanking. "You've got 30 seconds." Minutes later, a CNBC anchor asked a trader on the floor of the stock exchange: "What do you think? End of the world?"
Context may have been hard to find, but advice and emotion were plentiful. Not satisfied with calling the financial crisis the worst since the Great Depression, CNBC's Jim Cramer warned repeatedly that "Great Depression II" was on the way. In early October, the normally frenetic host sounded downright depressed on the "Today" show, where he counseled in a low voice, "Whatever money you may need for the next five years, please take it out of the market right now, this week."
The financial crisis was good news for the business news networks, of course. CNBC had its best ratings ever in October, drawing an average of 634,000 daytime viewers, almost double its audience a year before. The fledgling Fox Business Network marked its first anniversary during the crisis with a daytime average of 32,000 viewers, according to the Los Angeles Times — minuscule by CNBC standards, but an increase of more than 400 percent over last year. FBN hopes to narrow the gap, in part by going after Cramer in ads running on his own network with the catchphrase: "The last thing you need is bad advice."
You can't blame cable TV for thumping the Wall Street drum. It's a significant story with the kind of minute-by-minute action that news channels live for. All of them added a box showing the Dow numbers in real time all day long. Useful, perhaps, but sometimes misleading. Watching the Dow surge or fall during live coverage of a presidential candidate's speech made it appear the market was responding to what was being said, kind of like a dial group during a debate. Obviously, it wasn't.
The financial crisis did have one positive effect on cable's general news channels; it kept them from talking interminably about a missing Florida toddler or Madonna's divorce, stories that otherwise would have dominated their agendas for days on end.
But this should have been a time for cable news to shine. Instead, it seemed incapable of providing the perspective viewers craved. Then again, that might have been just too much to expect from a culture ruled by slam-bam breaking news and overheated opinion.