After billionaire Michael Bloomberg won the race to become New York’s next mayor, the French news agency AFP noted that he “was among the first to see how the information age could serve investors in unprecedented — and lucrative — ways.” Bloomberg’s campaign spent $69 million from his vast personal fortune, made possible by a media environment teeming with reverence for accumulation of wealth.
Bloomberg News became a far-reaching wire service during the 1990s as financial news gradually loomed larger in mass media. The operative definition of “general interest news” kept tilting. Mainstream outlets steadily shifted resources and priorities to the business of covering business.
Back in 1970, when PBS launched “Wall Street Week” with Louis Rukeyser, the program was conspicuous. Now it’s just one of many national TV shows — most of them daily — focusing on the quest for high returns. After “Moneyline” premiered on CNN in 1980, cable television news grew while embracing the world of investment. In 1989, General Electric opted to dedicate much of its startup news channel CNBC to the stock market.
When host Lou Dobbs left “Moneyline” in spring 1999 at the start of his two-year absence from CNN, it was the cable network’s most profitable show. By then, broadcast networks were fervently targeting the same demographics, and not only with explicitly financial offerings like “CBS Marketwatch.”
Regular news programs got accustomed to lavishing attention on minor business developments — not because of significant economic implications for the general public, but because of executive decisions in news departments.
When CNN revamped its daytime schedule in mid-1999 to make room for three and a half hours of programs about commerce and investment, the cable giant’s president Richard Kaplan explained: “We look at business and finance as something we have to cover on a general interest news network. It’s like the Cold War in the ’50s. You just have to do it.”
Some viewers became far more equal than others. For broadcast and cable television, the goal has not simply been to attract a high number of eyeballs. As the Associated Press reported this year in an article about the intense competition between “Moneyline” and CNBC’s “Business Center” program: “The audiences are small, but affluent, so advertisers pay a premium to run commercials.”
Countless news stories now amount to little more than human interest narratives about the glories and tribulations of entrepreneurs, financiers and CEOs. At networks owned by conglomerates like GE, Viacom and Disney, the news divisions solemnly report every uptick or downturn of the stock market. Between 1988 and 1999, the TV networks doubled the amount of air time they devoted to the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq.
Viewers may assume that coverage reflects the considered judgment of journalistic pros. But those journalists are in a media industry dominated by corporate institutions with enough financial sway to redefine the functional meaning of professionalism.
National Public Radio airs the “NPR business update” as part of its regular newscast, heard many times each day on stations nationwide. There’s no “NPR labor update.” Public radio listeners have easy access to the national daily “Marketplace” program and the weekly “Sound Money” show, but there’s no “Workplace” or “Sound Labor” broadcast.
In the quarter century since The New York Times founded its “Business Day” section, daily papers have turned more and more newsprint over to targeting the affluent readers most coveted by business advertisers.
The Washington Post expanded its everyday business section from two to 12 pages. Around the country, the pattern has been similar, with a range of media outlets boosting their financial coverage — at the expense of other news.
Along the way, these trends have transformed basic concepts of what it really means to be a journalist. “As the 1980s rocketed along, our ‘readers’ became ‘consumers,’” recalls New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques. “As the 1990s unfolded, those ‘consumers’ morphed into ‘investors.’ And today, some of us are speaking only to investors who also own computer modems.”
The quality of mainstream journalism has always suffered due to the power of big money in the form of ownership and advertising, but flawed bygone eras are apt to evoke fond nostalgia in the present day.
“As our intended audience has gotten narrower, so have we,” Henriques lamented a year ago in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Business news today rarely sounds the sonorous chords or heart-lifting themes of great journalism. Most of it simply buzzes and squeaks, a reedy clarinet against a rhythm section of cash registers and ticker tape.”
That sort of high-rolling muzak provided the backbeat for Michael Bloomberg’s march into the elite ranks of billionaires — and into the New York mayor’s office.
Norman Solomon’s latest book is “The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.” His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.