As Meltdown Unfolds, CNBC Adapts

Across the Hudson River from Manhattan, at the New Jersey headquarters of financial news channel CNBC, you can find many of the nation's most famous journalists and pundits hashing over issues of money and the markets.

And you'll find, in their own way, they're just as astonished about the tumult in the financial system as anyone else.

Take CNBC correspondent David Faber.

"I mean, if I had told you this a year ago, even that the U.S. government was going to inject $250 billion as an investor in banks, you would have said, 'What the hell are you smoking?'" Faber says. "It's just incredible."

Faber is a prototypical reporter, in that he was an English major whose expertise comes from 22 years on the beat. His in-depth documentaries, taking weeks or months to report, have won top awards. One documentary, which aired earlier this year, was called Untold Wealth and focused on the gabillionaires of a new gilded age of capitalism.

Times change.

"And now here we are at the end, you know, of eight years of Republican rule and we're ending with a form of socialism," Faber says. He laughs, shaking his head. "It's pretty funny."

For the past month, Faber has been sprinting just to keep up with each new day's developments by compulsively calling hedge fund managers and corporate figures. Because he has to leap from one big-picture story to the next, he says he can't dive too deep.

For a while, Faber and other financial journalists had reported on troubling developments in credit markets. But he says the naysayers about the overall financial system were in such a minority it was hard to give them benefit of the doubt.

These days, CNBC boasts that it has tripled the number of analysts it has on the air each day, from 40 to 120. At any one time, the channel may feature as many as eight analysts, reporters and anchors onscreen at once. It looks a bit like the opening credits of the TV classic The Brady Bunch.

It became such a brush fire hit among financial news junkies that Jon Stewart took note on The Daily Show when CNBC thought that eight might not be enough.

"What if the enormity of this economic collapse is so huge that even eight of the financial industry's smallest-headed people can't figure it out?" Stewart asked, pausing to proclaim, "Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time ever, on CNBC, behold the majesty of the Decabox — 10 pundits!"

But there are more serious critiques, including the concern that CNBC and other cable financial channels' intense coverage of the markets is helping to drive some of the broad swings in stock values.

"It causes people to want to do something, whether they should or not," says Brian Lipps, branch manager of a Charles Schwab investment office in Washington. "You know, they feel like they have to do something because some guy is screaming on Channel 43 or whatever it is. Our advice is just turn it off. I mean, no offense to the CNBC people. But just turn it off."

Instead, more people are turning it on. Last week earned the channel the biggest audience in its history. And estimates from Nielsen Media Research indicate that CNBC's ratings last week were about 90 percent above where they stood a year ago.

That's because viewers are hungry to watch history unfolding in real time, says Jonathan Wald, CNBC's senior vice president for business news.

"The trick is to take all the real-time data, which our audience craves — and not just throw it out there like a shotgun blast, but to sort and analyze and explain it, and make a point about why it's important," Wald says.

In normal times, CNBC is hyperfocused on individual stocks. These aren't normal times, and some stories just skate by these days. Reporters and anchors volunteered such topics as whether IBM or Hewlett-Packard was a better buy; whether the sharp drop in oil prices suggests they had been manipulated earlier this year to rise; and new nuclear plants on the drawing boards.

Faber grimaces when asked about a New York Times story breaking the news that GM might merge with Chrysler. He had the story but didn't nail it down in time. He says being beaten led to sleepless nights, but that the scoop was victim to putting out other fires.

"This is the biggest financial story that we'll ever have," Faber says. "I've been doing this for 22 years. I don't know how much longer I'll do it. But there's no way that I will ever see something like this again. I just am firmly convinced this crisis of '07 and '08 will be one that we're writing about in the history books for decades to come."

NPR's Frank Langfitt contributed to this story.

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