The news media didn't create the bull market. We never forced an investor to buy a single share of stock. What we did was give a platform to a bunch of touts. The touts impressed us. They had nice clothes and business cards printed up with the most exotic, alluring phrases. Credit Suisse First Boston! UBS Warburg! Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown! Just uttering those names made us feel smarter and more cosmopolitan, like we might be turning into the sort of people who weekend at Cap Ferrat.
The touts touted, and we nodded and scribbled. We convinced ourselves they had access to the future, and it was marvelous, and we passed their descriptions of it on to a trusting public. Pets.com was an extremely promising company, some of our favorite touts averred (it went bankrupt). We really ought to check out a fast-growing Internet company with the cool name Razorfish ($56 a share in February 2000, lately trading for under 50 cents a share). As for tech giants such as Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems, many highly touted touts saw nothing but blue sky (both companies are down about 75 percent from their highs of last year). We even called the touts "analysts," a scientific-sounding title few deserved.
Now we're chastened. We've looked around at the damage and assigned a lot of blame to ourselves. The Financial Times said it most elegantly in an editorial headlined, "Shoot All the Analysts":
"As the great bull market roared ahead, analysts were turned by the media into far-sighted seers and sources of wisdom. The most articulate of them, by now extremely rich, would feature regularly on the business TV shows, wearing suits that were worth more than most of their clients' portfolios.... Now, at last, they have had their comeuppance.... The media, including the Financial Times, should be much more chary about attributing wisdom to analysts."
But amid all the flagellation, nobody seems to have noticed the strangest thing of all about the media and the bull market. For almost a decade, journalists did something quite out of character: We accentuated the positive. Over the years, we had acquired a reputation, largely deserved, for loving bad news. Nothing thrilled us like a good war, an epidemic, a ghastly murder, a devastating economic collapse. Our nightmare was a world in which the government was doing a good job, peace reigned, businesses thrived, and most people were happy. Good news wasn't news at all, not to us. The age-old complaint about the media, in letters to the editor and in polls, was that we were unrelentingly negative. We laughed it off, but we knew it was true.
The bull market changed all that. We stopped enjoying the bad news, and got addicted to the good. A trade that had once searched high and low for negative stories about Wall Street and Big Business, devoted most of its energy to positive ones, and the touts were our best sources. "What are you buying now?" or some variant of that question, was one of the most frequently uttered sentences on CNBC, on Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser, and all the other TV and radio shows on which touts appeared. Money, SmartMoney, and other financial magazines were obsessed with stocks and funds we should be buying right now. The buy focus spilled over into the general media: the big newspapers and networks.
The touts were promiscuous with their buy recommendations, but they almost never spoke of selling, mainly because they didn't want to offend companies that might bring lucrative underwriting business to their firms. And we almost never asked. It was rude to bring it up, like walking into a wild party and talking about death.
It's unfortunate that selling was so rarely discussed in the media, because, even in a bull market, every time someone buys a share of stock, someone else is selling it. In order for a lot of people to obey the touts and purchase Amazon.com at more than $400 a share, a lot of other people had to sell the stock at the same price. Who were those people? Why didn't we cover them as assiduously as we covered the touts? Because the sell story was bad news, and we'd lost the taste.
That was last year. Now, bad news abounds. The New Economy is in ruins. The touts have been shown to be charlatans. Selling is the rage, and suddenly the media have a chance to return to their negative roots, to revel in the awfulness of it all.
So far, however, we don't seem to be enjoying it. The coverage of the downturn has an unmistakable hangdog quality. CNBC's affable gang brightens up only on the rare bullish day, of which there were a few this week. Newspaper stories are either muted, as in the recent New York Times front-pager, "As Stocks Tumble, President Sounds a Note of Concern"; or downright sob sister, as in the Washington Post story that opened with a single mother in Seattle who worries that because of stock losses, "she may not have enough money to pay the $24,000 in tuition, room, and board Colin needs to attend his first-choice school."
Coverage of the downturn lacks energy, and the reason is fairly obvious. The bad news we enjoy so much—earthquakes, wars and such—has nothing directly to do with us. We are innocent bystanders, mere recorders. But this disaster is partly our fault. The bad news is, we were suckered by touts, and there's just no way to make it feel good.
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