Monday, March 16, 2009

Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer and CTV Newsnet


Anyone seen last week's "The Daily Show" episode where Jon Stewart interviewed Jim Cramer from Mad Money about his responsibility to the viewers as a business commentator?

Watching it brought back memories of my days as a business anchor/editor and interviewer with CTV Newsnet from 1998 to 2005, and on Canada's Business Report, a syndicated daily radio show from Canada News Wire.

The job was hectic: I did a dozen half-hourly newscasts a day, plus interviews with business newsmakers. Sometimes I would be ad-libbing my reports from the floor of the TSX in Toronto. Other times, I'd be stool-to- stool on the TSX Mezzanine conducting 6 minute long interviews with CEOs, CFOs, analysts and economists. Or I'd be down at the Report on Business Television studio, (now called BNN) doing the business news as well as supper hour and late night business reports for CTV affiliate stations across the country.

Some of the criticism which I heard Jon Stewart levy against financial journalists in general, about this current economic recession, was that these big name prominent TV journalists somehow "knew" what was going on with the sub prime mortgages, Asset Backed Paper fiasco, and all the unsustainable growth in commodities stocks that it seemed could go on forever....but didn't report on any of this to their viewers, and somehow, were in "cahoots" with the Wall Street titans of industry.

Personally, I can say I only came under any kind of "pressure" not to report about a business story, ONCE, in all my time on the CTV Newsnet business desk.

It involved some "less then positive news" about BCE, the parent company that owned CTV and its media empire including Newsnet. I don't recall whether the news which I had wanted to report involved some disappointing quarterly financial results, or an unfavourable CRTC ruling, but I do know that the story would have painted BCE in a negative light. It was true. And on the wires. But I was told not to deliver the story that way, but rather, just state the numbers, and move on. Use 'neutral' words etc, since they own us.

I remember being piqued at this. Yes we always had to say on air in our stories about BCE that they were "the parent company of CTV Newsnet", or some form of disclaimer. But that was the only time when I actually came face to face with pressure from within about how to report a story about the folks who signed my paycheque. And yes, I did what I was told, for the record.

As for being "in cahoots" with the titans of industry, I can say from my vantage point that I never saw my colleagues at CTV Newsnet or BNN, including Linda Sims, Mike Eppel, Susan Ormiston, Howard Green, Martin Cej, the late Jim O'Connell and others, ever take bribes from corporate execs, or do potentially sleazy unethical journalistic practises when doing their jobs.

Amanda Lang was married to a big mover and shaker in the gold business, and Kevin O'Leary invested his own money in the markets while being a commentator on air. But that's hardly being "in cahoots".

What I did see were frantically busy business journalists trying to do as good a job as they could with impossible deadlines, as they had to fill the demands of a 24 hour news channel. So you do as much research and preparation as possible for your next hit, within the time that you have. And we certainly weren't "taking Wall Street/Bay Street's word for it", as Jon Stewart alleges.

I know my job required tons of reading and journalistic research (in off hours as well as during the 9 hour shift): here's just some of the research that I did during a usual day in order to try to put financial stories in context for myself and my viewers: check all the daily newspaper business pages (Globe, Star, FInancial Post, National Post, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal), and their online websites for updates, read endless corporate financial statements, analysts' reports, investment bank economic research, search news paper archives, check financial websites with analysis such as Morningstar, GlobeInvestorGold, Bloomberg's wire service, Hoovers, Dow Jones, Canada News Wire press releases, listen to web conferences of annual meetings, read economic indicator reports from the Canadian and U.S. governments, Bank of Canada reports, SEC filings, CEDAR and other Canadian regulatory agencies filings, reports from Statistics Canada, from European banks, the OECD, auto industry analysts, JD Powers, Retail Council of canada, the CRTC, court rulings on bankruptcies and restructuring, etc etc.

Whew. I'm sure I'm missing more.

There's more: our producers and researchers were business experts in their own right: Bruno Malta had passed the Canadian Securities Course, and eventually left to work as a financial advisor at BMO. If even more background or checking was needed, we did what all good journalists are supposed to do: we went directly to our sources, asked for clarification, and explanation. Then we checked with alternate sources -- policy wonks, brokers, consumers, politicians, professors, analysts.

And when I needed even more background, about a financial statement I thought was strange, I checked with my personal experts: this included the most experienced accounting expert I know -- my husband, a CA and PhD who has been teaching accounting for over 25 years and runs the Accounting program at UOIT now, and was with York's Schulich School of Business for many years before this, and has written 3 textbooks on Financial Accounting.

If it involved law, I checked with --a lawyer in Montreal specializing in corporate and intellectual property --practicing law for 47 years-- my Dad Morton Bessner! And also with a litigation lawyer in Toronto from Gowlings who is a sought after author and trains financial advisors how not to get sued --my cousin Ellen J. Bessner (she shares my name but spells it differently).

Some of you may say this all sounds like an excuse for justifying a serious failure: Jon Stewart's charge that some business journalists were so busy "feeding the goat" as it's called, churning out a dozen newscasts a day, entertaining the audience, that they are just too darn busy or lazy to really do a proper job digging up the dirt.

Still others may say that some business journalists don't have enough understanding of how the market really works in order to see dirt and scandal that former Wall Street insiders like Jim Cramer are accused of knowing.

From where I see it, Jon Stewart's allegations are really a sad indictment of modern day journalism -- especially investigative journalism in the 21st century.

Newsrooms who give their reporters time and money to carry out these vital checks and balances on authority, are few and far between. CBC Radio's I unit run by Suzane Reber is one of the few remaining spaces for this kind of work. W5 and the Fifth estate also do this. But for the rest, and their 24 hour news cycles, it's less about breaking exclusive stories and leading the pack with enterprise journalism, and more about "feeding the machine" and "matching" what other outlets have.
It's often more about "light, bright and tight" celebrity obsessed gossip/news, instead of valuable but perhaps less exciting and way more time consuming journalism on issues that impact millions of people.

Much has been said about how the U.S. media acted in a similar way under the previous Bush administration, buying into the Weapons of Mass Destruction propaganda that led to the war in Iraq.

It's a sad thing to see. And I am not optimistic that things will improve soon --despite Jon Stewart's outraged howling wakeup call to our industry -- with the current havoc this recession is causing in the traditional model of television news and newspapers.

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