If the National Weather Service issued a warning about a tsunami nearing our shores, here’s what you’d see on your TV screen: news centers turned into “storm centers,” with fancy graphics and Doppler radars tracking the likely “strike zone,” and brave reporters in rain gear hugging the coastline, heightening alarm about the disaster to come.
Yet when a calamity struck last summer–a financial tsunami, tied to the implosion of the subprime mortgage market–most media were asleep at the switch. True, there were reports about the market meltdown, but the crisis sparked little breaking-news excitement, and the presidential candidates didn’t touch the subject of a financial crisis for months.
The mystery deepens when you realize how much attention our media give to business news. After all, there are three twenty-four-hour cable stations–CNBC, Fox Business and Bloomberg TV–monitoring every blip in the indices. Thomson Reuters and AP now compete with Murdoch’s Dow Jones to get the news to us first. PBS has its Nightly Business Report, and NPR does Marketplace. There are endless magazines and corporate news websites. All the networks have their experts, and every newspaper has a business section.
A major part of the problem is that the financial journalists who cover Wall Street are used to writing for Wall Street’s customers–the very mortgage companies and financial institutions that were raking in millions from the bubble. And the major business news outlets speak to buyers and sellers, rarely to consumers and citizens. All of these outlets have relatively small audiences of high-income viewers. According to Monroe Mendelsohn Research, the typical CNBC viewer has a net worth of $2.7 million, with a $156,000 average income. (Nielsen puts the CNBC home viewer’s income at $73,000, compared with the average cable viewer’s income of $48,000.) For many of these outlets, demographics are destiny–they cover the news of, for and by the elite.
Much of our media are tethered to a mission to pump up confidence, no doubt to support their advertisers. They ignore realists and critics and play up the prognostications of insiders, usually perennial optimists who have been consistently wrong in their predictions. Jim Cramer, for example, the biggest mouth on the air, initially dismissed the subprime problem.
In a culture that promotes consumption through media that do more selling than telling, it’s not acceptable to discourage spending. The huge sums earned from commercials by predatory lenders and credit card companies started in earnest after the 2000 tech crash dried up hundreds of millions in dot-com advertising. When Wall Street, with help from Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve, began blowing up a new bubble to revive the economy, this time in housing, a flood of mortgage ads and credit card solicitations inundated TV, radio and the Internet. The wave continued even after a parade of banks began announcing billion-dollar write-downs and mortgage companies imploded. Nielsen Monitor-Plus reported that since 2000, mortgage lenders have spent over $3 billion in ads on TV, radio and in print.
The New York Times exposed all this seven years after the ad avalanche began, adding, “That figure does not include direct mail and Internet advertising, which are increasingly popular vehicles for the industry. Nielsen/NetRatings estimates that mortgage companies spent $378 million in the first six months of  on Internet display ads.” Yes, this was reported–but not when it might have done some good. It was like closing the barn door after the horses were gone.
Major newspapers began launching joint marketing projects with realtors, who buy many of the ads in the Sunday papers, an important profit center for the dailies. Huge marketing budgets were deployed to peddle shoddy products. Ameriquest, one of the 255 bankrupt lenders (later purchased by Citigroup), bought million-dollar-plus spots on Super Bowl broadcasts. MasterCard was a major sponsor of the Academy Awards. The Truth in Lending Act nominally regulates credit TV advertising, but enforcement has been weak, often nonexistent. A perusal of real estate blogs finds brokers sniping at all the inaccurate and deceptive ads transmitted by TV and radio stations.
I raised the issue of shady advertising with four FCC commissioners who spoke in January at Jesse Jackson’s Wall Street Summit. They all agreed it was deplorable but said the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, is responsible for monitoring it. Good luck. How can we expect regulations governing ads to be enforced when even more crucial financial laws have not been enforced by an Administration that believes in deregulation with a fervency bordering on the religious?
More and more, it seems, you have to seek out reporting from other countries to find out what’s really going on. Larry Elliott, economics editor of the London Guardian, observed recently, “It is somewhat surprising that there is not already rioting in the streets, given the gigantic fraud perpetrated by the financial elite at the expense of ordinary Americans.”
If there are ever any prosecutions of wrongdoers in this subprime Ponzi scheme, the media outlets should be investigated for the role they played in promoting predatory and fraudulent lending. But don’t hold your breath for the “money honeys” on CNBC to frame the story this way.