Wednesday, June 28, 2006

CJR Daily Does it Again

Sheesh. This is now the second time today -- and third time this week -- that I'll be criticizing CJR Daily. I really do hate to nag, but the item today on the Wall Street Journal was awe-inspiring, in the most negative sense of that phrase.

The subject was a story on Warren Buffett's gift of $37 billion in Berkshire Hathaway shares to the Gates foundation. It was a routine article that examined the impact of the gift on Berkshire Hathaway share prices.

The Journal story was innocuous and, I must say, fairly obvious -- to everybody on the planet, I suspect, except CJR Daily, a journalism review website, in the "Audit" section of the website devoted to the business press.

One thing the financial press does, but which CJR Daily totally overlooks, is examine stuff like the impact of things on stock prices. It's grimy, it's sometimes a bit dull, but it is one of the reasons why the Wall Street Journal exists.

As a matter of fact, this article appeared in a daily column called "Heard on the Street" -- a feature devoted to examining things that impact on the market. Apparently that meant nothing to CJR Daily, which does not mention that this was a "Heard" column.

CJR Daily was puzzled and outraged by this article! So outraged that it slapped on an absurd, naive headline: "The Journal Reports That Good Deeds Are Bad." And, yes, puzzled (genuinely puzzled, I fear) why the article was run: ". . .there is only one question that really needs to be answered about this article," it said. "Why write it?"

The website continued with the following bizarre rant:

Is it because the Journal's sources actually stand to profit from the very fluctuations they claim to fear (and profit even more if they can whip up some market hysteria with an article in a prominent business newspaper)? We can only speculate, but there is no doubt that there is a deeply cynical strain of business reporting that has come to reduce everything to numbers, seemingly blind to the reality that business affects people -- real lives that are either trampled or uplifted depending on the decisions of market players like Buffett.
Jumping butterballs! What is wrong with these people? There is absolutely nothing in the article suggesting that dark, nefarious market players were feeding info to the Journal, hoping to "profit" from "market hysteria." Besides, it is beyond me how a story like this, a story so non-earthshaking, could whip up "hysteria" for a stock as large as Berkshire.

But that's not what I find bizarre. The obvious answer to the "why write it" was that an editor assigned it or that a reporter thought, with good reason, that it was a good story. For the CJR website to suggest, without evidence, that a couple of Journal reporters (this was a joint byline) were manipulated by market players is just plain irresponsible. (Oh, and full disclosure: I have never met either Journal reporter.)

The CJR Daily piece concludes with this sanctimonious cheap shot: "Maybe one day the folks on Wall Street will come to realize that good deeds add value, and maybe the journalists who cover that beat will report on the perfect negative correlation between the rise in Berkshire's stock and the demand for tasteless fortresses and marble statuary in Greenwich, CT."
Mark Mitchell

There are plenty of reasons to find fault with financial journalism. I criticize the media severely in my book for touting investment managers and being overly deferential to hedge funds, among other things. But this kind of snarky article seems only to prove that the folks at CJR Daily are having a hard time filling space.

They may want to try a house ad next time.

UPDATE: CJR Daily assistant managing editor Mark Mitchell sounds off -- first anonymously, and then under his own name! See the comments to this article. It should be noted that I've chatted with Mark in the past and consider him to be a fine fellow, although we do disagree on a bunch of subjects -- such as, for example, the role of short-sellers in the demise of Enron. Note the tail end of this article that I wrote for Salon a while back.

© 2006 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.


Wall Street Versus America was published by Penguin USA on April 6.
Click here for its listing and here for more information on the book, from my web site.

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