For journalists, the ruined stock market isn't just an awesome story; it's a chance to show what we really think about the business world. There's a gigantic culture gap between the news tribe and corporate America, one that comes down to different views of money. Basically, we subscribe to the biblical view that money is the root of all evil, and our job is to expose that evil through news stories about bad companies such as Enron and WorldCom.
Most of the time we keep this view well hidden. The economy is a top-shelf story, after all, and there's no sense alienating the powerful corporate execs who run it, not when they're riding high.
But when they're down and out, business types look a lot less intimidating, and our real views start to creep into the coverage, along with a certain smug satisfaction. Now, with Wall Street in so much trouble, we are not above telling the public we knew it all along: Business is a dirty game with a lot of very dirty players.
The other night on CNBC, where a vaguely boosterish tone normally prevails in market coverage, anchor Lester Holt introduced a report on corporate wrongdoing: "Street Crime: The boom years of the 1990s go bust on Wall Street, but how shocking, really, are the current scandals? Could they be business as usual in a culture that seems to play by the golden rule that greed is good?"
You can guess what the answer was. When Alan Greenspan said last week that "an infectious greed seemed to grip much of our business community," he touched the media in a very special place, and days later we were still shuddering with delight. The phrase was used in hundreds of articles and broadcasts. National Public Radio invited an ethicist to comment on the infection. "Some attribute the recent corporate scandals to a widespread culture of greed, and others say it's just the misbehavior of a few bad apples," said the host. "What do you think?" Citing Greenspan, the ethicist said we're not just talking about a few scoundrels here; corporate greed is a "more systemic" problem.
The coinage was such a hit among media folk that it even started popping up in nonbusiness coverage. "Infectious greed" made its way this week into a Time magazine essay on Austin Powers in Goldmember and into a New York Times science story about new research on human behavior.
The phrase also appeared in another Times story, one that ran on the front of last Sunday's Style section under the headline "Corporate Bad Guys Make Many Seek the Road Less Traveled." The story was about young college and business-school graduates who, having watched this wave of corporate scandals unfold, are now deciding to forgo business careers in favor of nobler pursuits. It opened with Ameet Shah, a 24-year-old Duke graduate who had once dreamed of becoming a "corporate titan." As a first step, he got a job at a New York bank. "But no sooner had Mr. Shah settled into the perks of his new career—expense accounts, car services and enough cash to support an apartment in a doorman building—than his world was shaken by a market downturn and a stream of stories about corporate malfeasance. The deals—and the perks—dried up, many of his colleagues were fired, and Mr. Shah got a peek at capitalism's dark side."
Horrified, Mr. Shah signed up to become a low-paid teacher in the South Bronx. According to The Times, he's not alone: "This unpleasant reality has forced a reassessment of values among many at the start of their professional lives. For some, that means simply asking tough questions about their motives for getting into business in the first place. Others, like Mr. Shah, have decided that conspicuous consumption is not all it was cracked up to be. While not quite marching en masse to ashrams, they are choosing jobs that are more personally and spiritually rewarding and even—gasp—altruistic, according to interviews with dozens of recent graduates and career guidance officials."
Mr. Shah and his cohorts are probably not representative of most recent graduates. But their new, jaundiced view of corporate America is remarkably similar to the views of many journalists, which may explain how they wound up as a trend story. Journalists are only human, and we're always looking for people who remind us of ourselves—even in corporate America, where the journalistic worldview is a rare thing.
In the recent shake-up at AOL Time Warner, two men, Don Logan and Jeff Bewkes, were elevated to important new posts. Both came from the "content" side of the company—Logan from Time's magazine division, and Bewkes from HBO. Journalists are content people, too, and as the media introduced Logan and Bewkes to the public, you could sense the trade's identification with them. Logan, we learned, is an Alabama native who, as The Financial Times put it, enjoys "indulging in his two passions, fishing and novels." Hmmm, sounds a lot like Howell Raines, the Alabama-bred editor of The New York Times, also said to love fishing and novels. Bewkes, it was widely noted, was identified at HBO with The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under—i.e., the kinds of shows that even journalists, notorious TV snobs, love to watch.
It was as if journalists everywhere were hoping that a couple of guys just like us—good guys who care more about content than money—were finally taking the reins at a major corporation. And the reign of evil might be coming to an end.
Fat chance. But even journalists can dream.