Occupy Wall Street coverage reveals some financial journalists still mired in Wall Street culture
The first story on the first show of CNBC anchor-turned CNN star Erin Burnett's new series OutFront was a snarky put-down of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
But it also could have served as a textbook explanation for financial journalists' biggest continuing weakness: Identifying too much with the high powered CEOs and executives they cover.
Burnett treated her visit to the Occupy Wall Street scene like an expedition into am uncharted land, interviewing outrageously dressed protesters with equal doses of condescension and bemused contempt. ("It seems like people want a messiah leader," she said, just before cutting down the protesters in a talkback interview with former Giuliani aide John Avlon. "just like they did when they anointed Barack Obama."
Perhaps someone at CNN sees Burnett's pro-Wall Street focus as an answer for consistent charges from the right of liberal bias. But what it really reveals is the same sort of groupthink which kept leading business reporters from uncovering the dangerous financial practices which brought on our current recession in the first place.
Burnett, as has been noted elsewhere, started as an employee of financial firm Goldman Sachs, moving into media at CNN, Citigroup and Bloomberg Television before hitting the big time at NBC News. She's steeped in the culture of business reporter as corporate insider; so when a return to CNN let her show a little more attitude, it's no surprise where those sympathies fell.
Burnett's not alone. New York Times business columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin -- whose book on the economic meltdown, Too Big to Fail, was turned into an Emmy-nominated HBO movie -- said he visited the protests after a big CEO called him, asking if Wall Street executives should be worried.
That's the problem with being the consummate insider. Too often, you can begin to think like the people you are covering, reflecting and channel ling their attitudes and ideas, instead of challenging them.
Alison Kosik, another CNN reporter, got into similar hot water, issuing a message on Twitter last week which summed up the protests as "bang on the bongos, smoke weed." I was quoted in a story by liberal media watchdogs Media Matters criticizing the attitude of the post, which came from a reporter, not an opinionator.
Turns out, there is a list of demands developed by some organizers of the protests, which has been online since late last month. And one consistent theme of the protests is the complaint that insitutions which are supposed to serve the people -- like government and, ahem, the news media -- have instead been co-opted by the wealthy and big business insitutions. Could such coverage be proving them right?
The real problem is that these journalists, who are supposed to be watchdogs themselves of the financial world, seem to have internalized Wall Street's perspective so much, they're having a hard time standing apart. This seemed to be one reason why journalists didn't tumble to the risks of credit default swaps and overleveraged banks until the system came crashing down; if Wall Street culture accepts the practice, then they are swept along.
I'm hoping, after a week of media bashing that our leading financial journalists take a lesson and try to hold the Street's culture at arm's length occasionally. I think their journalism would benefit.