Digitally Fueled Rants Kill Objectivity, User Trust

Reuters reports that one in five U.S. mortgages are underwater; the people paying them owe more than their house is worth. The real flood, however, is swamping the Internet, where gloomy financial news headlines and the antics of TV-based business reporters threaten to inundate your typical Web surfer.

Financial news that now travels at the speed of fright, thanks to the Web, was much easier to digest and much happier during my time at CNBC. Ten years ago this month, I was a tech reporter at the network’s Fort Lee, N.J., headquarters, watching the Dow smash through the 10,000 mark. The Nasdaq was closing in on 5,000 and the air in the dot-com bubble smelled oh so sweet.

Ten years. My battered 401K tells me that was about three lifetimes ago. Social networks, iPhones and Google make those days seem like the Jurassic period of technology, if you’re measuring in Internet time, and why wouldn’t you? And the recent doings of some current CNBC staffers tell me that things have truly changed since I worked for the world’s leading financial news network.

Plenty has been said about CNBC editor Rick Santelli’s on-air trashing of President Obama’s mortgage relief plan. I come not to bury or praise Santelli, but to talk about the viral message that lives on after him. His rant became a digital victory for his network after Matt Drudge bestowed his link-love blessing. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was moved to respond by slamming Santelli.

Gibbs reloaded this week for comments from another CNBCer, “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer, who said Obama’s fiscal policies were responsible for “the greatest wealth destruction ever seen by a president.”

CNBC Changes You Can Believe In

These developments sparked by my former employer prompt two immediate thoughts:

  • Some are questioning why Gibbs would waste podium time targeting CNBC. Here’s why: Gibbs was well within this administration’s character to take on Santelli and Cramer. There’s no lecturing Gibbs and Obama on the power of the Internet; their deft cyberstrategy during the campaign got them their new jobs. Gibbs knows that in 2009, it’s not just what Santelli and Cramer (or Rush Limbaugh, for that matter) say on traditional broadcast that matters. Having their video clips embedded on a thousand blogs and news Web sites lends them speed AND weight. Gibbs and the Obama White House are simply tailoring the James Carville/George Stephanopoulos Rapid Response War Room strategy to the wired 21st century.
  • Ten years ago, my bosses at CNBC wanted to see lots of energy when we delivered the day’s business news. “When the Nasdaq gains 100 points, you’ve got a million people watching you,” one manager said to me. I’m pretty sure they didn’t want our opinions. Analysts, CEOs, bulls and bears — their viewpoints were the reasons our bookers had them on speed-dial. But reporters or anchors/hosts crossing the objectivity line? No getting on your soap box — or even your Squawk Box.

Fast forward to the present, where more passion is suddenly the way to better online promotion. CNBC’s Web site now presents links to “Santelli’s Greatest Hits,” video clips that the network says proves Santelli has cranked up the volume about other things besides Obama’s mortgage relief plans. You are encouraged to “Watch the Original Shout Heard ‘Round the World” (aka “Santelli’s Tea Party”) and “Read More About Rick’s Revolution.”

If CNBC managers still have problems with their journalists going all op-ed on your ass, they appear to be doing their best impression of the SEC during the Bernie Madoff years: They’re looking the other way.

Objectivity and Digital Media

I’m aware of the arguments regarding true objectivity in the traditional media and how digital media are rewriting even these longstanding guidelines. Hey, I read Jeff Jarvis too. The former Entertainment Weekly founder who is now considered a deep thinker in new media with his BuzzMachine blog has long touted the open source approach to journalism; the wisdom of the crowds helps correct mistakes, transparency about politics and affiliations enhances user trust, journalism is a process, not a product, and so on. Read all about it in Jarvis’ new book, What Would Google Do?, in which he applies lessons and techniques from the search company to other industries, including news.

I’m on board with most of what he’s written — except when it comes to objectivity. I’m still not convinced that the new media rules, and an Internet arena where everybody comes out swinging, aren’t taking the thin strands of what’s left of journalistic credibility and casting them to the winds.

Hanson Hosein is trying to tell me otherwise. “I personally believe objectivity has always been a canard, a fabrication of industrial media,” Hosein told me. “We both know journalists, and we know what they really thought about things.”

Hosein certainly knew journalists, including some of the best at NBC, where he was an award-winning reporter. Now he’s a social media consultant, independent filmmaker and director of the Masters in Communication in Digital Media program at the University of Washington.

“When you look at publications like The Economist, I don’t think you can say they practice objectivity. They’re for free trade, free markets. But they still present fair reporting and analysis, and people like that, and they have a voice. There’s the flip side to Santelli; the publication takes a point of view, but the reporting is balanced.”

“Traditionally we had gatekeepers that filter information and publish it. That’s how we existed. But in the last six or seven years, with social media and digital media, there’s no barrier of entry for anybody to publish. But what we can’t handle as humans is that we still need the filters. It’s not happening at the beginning of the process, though. It’s happening at the end. It’s publish now, then filter. And it’s not the networks or newspapers doing it. It’s a new hierarchy of filters, a lot more players.”

Digital Business News Good for Business?

I try to make the argument to Hosein that a recommitment to objectivity and credibility would be especially valuable to those wondering about the value of their retirement portfolios, their homes, their bank accounts. He agrees, but adds: “I believe Americans have lost their faith in the institutions that kept that credibility, such as Wall Street, such as government. But journalism’s downfall is not because of digital media. It’s been happening since the late 1980s with the conglomeratization of media. I was part of that in the ’80s, and you saw people moving away, saying ‘it’s not relevant to me.'”

And people shouting their opinions at you — on cable news and in digital media — at the end of the new century’s first decade somehow is relevant? Maybe not, but it’s one way to stand out, Hosein said. “The louder your megaphone, the more edgier, the more controversial your comments like Santelli, the more likely you’re going to get attention, even if you’re distorting facts. The fact of the matter is, it’s no longer an industrial media atmosphere where a small number of players are putting out information. There’s a ton of information, and you have to figure out how to cut through that.”

Did we mention that it helps if you figure out that ratings and page views problem too?

Hosein believes there’s a golden age of journalism coming thanks to digital media, even if the salaries won’t be what journalists are accustomed to receiving. I think so too, but I don’t think it will come until the audience sees an option involving compelling news, clearly defined and walled-off opinions — delivered in a civil manner, thank you very much — independent, thoughtful analysis that pays no heed to the 24/7 media universe, and plenty of Web 2.0 opportunities for user interaction and conversation. Users will trust you because you don’t take sides; not because you preach to their choirs.

I think the present, with the Dow in freefall, would be a good time to start. In fact, a recent CNBC promotional tagline celebrating the network’s 20th anniversary says it best for traditional and online media: “Now More Than Ever.”

TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

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