Journalists and the Stock Market
Perhaps you wonder how come we here in the news media always make
such a big deal about the Stock Market. The answer is simple: We
don't understand it. We have an old saying in journalism: "If you
don't understand something, it must be important."
This is also why we media people get so excited about science. In
our scientific educations, we got as far as the part in biology class
where they gave us a razor and a dead frog, and told us to find the
pancreas. Right then we started thinking two words, and those words
were: "English major."
So we quit studying science, which is why we do not begin to
understand -- to pick one of many examples -- how electricity works.
We believe that electricity exists, because the electric company
keeps sending us bills for it, but we cannot figure out how it
travels inside wires. We have looked long and hard at wires (some of
us have tried blowing into them) and we cannot begin to figure out
how the electrons, or amperes, or whatever, manage to squeeze through
there into the TV set, nor how, once inside, they manage to form
themselves into complex discernible images such as the Pillsbury
We in the media write our stories on computers, but since computers
contain both electricity and "modems," we have no idea how they work.
If you observe us professional journalists covering a news event,
you'll see that we divide our time as follows:
-- 1 percent: Getting information.
-- 6 percent: Writing stories.
-- 93 percent: Trying to get the computer to send the story back to
the newspaper by pressing keys pretty much at random with growing
panic until we have sent our stories to some destination -- possibly
the Kremlin; possibly the radio room of the Titanic -- but not to our
newspapers. Then we call our newspapers and beg for help from the
Computer People, who are technically competent people, the kind of
people who always found the frog pancreas; they understand "modems,"
and whatever they tell us to do to our computers, including wave a
Magic Bone over the keyboard, we do it.
We in the media are especially impressed with space. We cannot
comprehend how anybody could get a rocket to land on another planet;
many of us cannot consistently parallel park. This is why we got so
excited about the recent Pathfinder mission, which day after day
resulted in excited front-page headlines like:
ROCK FOUND ON MARS!
ANOTHER ROCK FOUND ON MARS!
MARS APPARENTLY COVERED WITH ROCKS!
We in the media believe that the Mars rocks are important because
scientists tell us so. We will cheerfully print, without question,
pretty much anything that scientists tell us about space ("STANFORD
-- Scientists here announced today that, using a powerful new type of
telescope that uses amperes connected to a 'modem,' they have located
six previously unknown galaxies shaped like all the major characters
on Gilligan's Island except Ginger").
My point is that this same principle applies to media coverage of the
Stock Market. We in the media, as a rule, are not good with
financial matters. Some veteran journalists have not yet turned in
their expense accounts for the Civil War. So as a group, we don't
really have a solid handle on (1) What the Stock Market is; (2) Why
it goes up and down; (3) Which is good, "Bull" or "Bear"; (4) Whether
"points" means the same thing as "dollars," and if so, why the heck
don't they just call them "dollars"; (5) Who "Alan Greenspan" is; and
(6) Whether he is the same as "Dow Jones."
Because we don't understand these things, we have naturally concluded
that the Stock Market is extremely important, and whenever it does
anything, we write front-page stories filled with quotes from
financial experts. But I suspect that these experts sometimes like
to yank the media's chain. Consider the following quotation, which
actually appeared in a Washington Post story back in August
explaining why the Stock Market went down:
"'For Coke, an icon of the market, to show feet of clay is
upsetting,' said Barton Biggs, global equity strategist at Morgan
Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Co."
I have read this sentence at least 35 times, and every time I have
more questions, including:
-- What kind of job is "global equity strategist"?
-- What kind of name is "Barton Biggs"?
-- Since when does Coke have feet?
These are just some of the issues that lead me to believe that if we
were to call "Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Co.," we would
find ourselves talking to the very same scientists who are always
"discovering" new galaxies and showing us pictures of "Mars rocks."
That's right: I think that science AND the Stock Market could be
part of some giant hoax, and I intend to transmit this information to
the newspaper, just as soon as I can locate the Magic Bone.