Book excerpt

Satyajit Das: 'Financial TV is pornography'

The Globe and Mail

Satyajit Das

Below is an edited extract from Satyajit Das (2011) Extreme Money: Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk. The material is taken from "Chapter 6: Money Honey."

Listen to the podcast on the left side of this page to hear Satyajit Das read an excerpt from "Chapter 21: Financial Nihilism."

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Financial Porn



Financial TV is pornography—sleazy, intrusive, seeking to titillate, and shock. During a crisis, these programs can be compulsive. Once, pornographic scripts had a passing interest in improbable plot and implausible dialogue. In the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, Jackie Treehorn bemoans falling standards in adult entertainment. Competition from cheap amateur pornographic films means that professionals can no longer afford the extra investment in story, production value, and feeling. Financial TV never bothered with plot, dialogue, or production values, focusing only on the action.



The 24/7 Joycean stream-of-consciousness financial noise machine calls for successive, rolling segments—pre-market, market, post-market, recapping today’s market and, finally, looking forward to tomorrow’s market. The formula requires an anchor or two. The only part of Louis Rukeyser’s legacy that survives is the fashion sense. Rukeyser (the permanently tanned, urbane, award-winning presenter of Wall Street Week, one of the original TV shows on money) was voted the best-dressed man in finance and America’s most sartorially elegant TV host. Playboy magazine described him as a “rakish raconteur.” Today’s TV hosts are well dressed, impeccably groomed, and perfectly coiffed.



Rudimentary sets create the illusion of overlooking a frenetic exchange or a city panorama, made possible by computer imagery. The occasional outside shot on the steps of a stock exchange or outside some monumental bank headquarters interrupts the visual monotony.



The fare is constant financial news and interviews with in-house (paid) and outside (unpaid) experts. A ticker-stream of breaking stories and market information scrolls along the peripheries of the screen. Graphs and various visuals assault the senses. The soundtrack is a series of video game noises, typically when the screen changes. The amphetamine-charged pace features interviewers and guests repeatedly interrupting and constantly talking over each other. Presenters take the title of CNBC’s signature show—Squawk Box—literally.



The editorial approach requires drama:



Human beings have an innate desire to be told and to tell dramatic

stories…. I am at a loss to name a single operatic work that

treats coronary artery disease as its subject but I can name several

where murder, incest, and assassination play a key part in the

story.



This is money, Jerry Springer or Howard Stern shock-jock style.



Speedy Money



Through the day, a succession of guests is interviewed on the topic of the moment—news, just released statistics, government policy announcements, or the latest good or bad news. TV follows its print rival: “If it bleeds, it leads!” The aim is to shed light on the impact of the news on the market.



But as Donald Rumsfeld astutely observed: “The problem is that people think that news is something that is announced before it happens, as opposed to something that is reported when it does happen.” Each interview is about 5 to 10 minutes—only divine beings get longer. Presenters are unlikely “to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary” (to use William Faulkner’s observation about Ernest Hemingway).



Sensible interviewees offer equivocal opinions to preserve plausible deniability. Rumsfeld once masterfully set out the mechanisms of evasion: “I’m working my way over to figuring out how I won’t answer.” The alternative is former U.S. Vice-President Dan Quayle’s formula: “I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy—but that could change.”



There are experts who do not know: “I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.” There are those who have theories: “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.” There are the fanatics: “one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Then there are politicians, like Sarah Palin, a former governor of Alaska and vice-presidential candidate: “Well, let’s see. There’s—of course— in the great history of America rulings, there have been rulings.”



In 1891 W.J. Stillman, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, commented about the effects of an earlier technological innovation—the telegraph—on journalistic standards:



[It has]transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical

expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of

the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency

for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the

entire human existence…. The frantic haste with which we bolt

everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist

not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from

judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We

have no time to go below surfaces.



During the global financial crisis, CNBC’s Power Lunch hosted a segment—“Turning the corner”—with Dr. Doom, Nouriel Roubini, together with the former derivative trader, financial philosopher, and best-selling author known variously as Nassim Taleb, Nicholas Nassim Taleb, NNT, or simply the Black Swan (his best-known work).



Bill Griffeth, the interviewer, and his co-host Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, started off upbeat: “What would it take to make you bearish on this economy right now?” Dr. Doom summarized the position: “It’s ugly!” Dr. Doom’s prophecy that the current recession was likely to be three times as long and three times as deep as previous recent recessions did not please Griffeth: “But that’s not the end of the world, is it?” The Black Swan was gloomy: “We have the same people in charge, those who did not see the crisis coming.” The hosts tried in vain to look for positive statements.



On live TV, the more dubious a proposition or unreliable a fact, the greater the authority and confidence with which it is stated. Constant repetition diminishes skepticism. Rumors, suppositions, and half-baked statistics become believable and ultimately accepted facts.





© 2011 Satyajit Das All rights reserved



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