The Idiot Box

If you want to learn something about the world of business, turn off your TV.

It's a lazy Wednesday afternoon and I'm watching Fox Business Network (FBN). The biggest business news of the day, apparently, is President Bush's meeting with the Dalai Lama. I've barely had a chance to puzzle over how this is a business story when FBN brings in megapastor Joel Osteen, the mild-mannered author of the "inspirational" (if not inspired) Your Best Life Now book series to provide expert commentary on the implications of the historic meeting. I'm surprised that the network producers think Osteen would be an appropriate analyst. Even more surprised is Osteen himself, who flashes the interviewer an "Are you kidding me?" look, then stammers that the Dalai Lama is, in his experience, a good guy, but notes that they don't share the same faith.

This is rather emblematic of FBN's programming: The stories of the day are mostly political happenings masquerading as business news. It's as if the men and women behind the curtain are hoping to drag the formidable audience of its big brother, Fox News, into the business category by making more of the same. Is that really necessary? Is straight busi­ness news too boring to sustain a cable channel?

The sustainability of Fox's competitors, CNBC and Bloomberg News, would seem to indicate not. They, of course, do have their own dubious quirks. Rarely a CNBC segment passes that doesn't involve an awkward analyst struggling to articulate the implications of a market move, anchors ad-libbing painfully bad jokes and then laughing at them, or an out-of-nowhere lifestyle story whose only relevance is its attractiveness to the advertising department. (The loss of those 10 minutes you wasted absorbing the virtues of the newest midmarket sedan would have been less regrettable if the sequence were an actual commercial.)

The problem is not that straight business news is too boring to work on TV; it's that the channels perceive it to be too complex for the notoriously dumbed-down medium and its presumably dumb audience. On the Fox Business Web site, featured articles include "What Is Wall Street?" and "Dating to Meet Your Match and Your Budget"--online counterparts to the channel's service-oriented on-air stories that, for instance, tell you how to avoid foreclosure if you default on your mortgage payments. From this we can deduce that the channel's producers imagine its typical viewer to be someone tightly budgeted and single, so ignorant of the business world that "Wall Street" is nearly if not completely unintelligible, and on the verge of having his or her house repossessed. CNBC and Bloomberg seem to think a bit more highly of their audiences, but their content still consists overwhelmingly of dry digests of market news and analysis generalized to the point of meaninglessness.

In the process, something important is lost. In bending over backward to make business relevant to viewers and assuming that they aren't sophisticated enough to understand or want anything beyond a rehash of whatever ran in the morning's Wall Street Journal, televised business news misses an opportunity to really examine the influence of private-sector power in modern society.

That said, the new Fox channel has some potential. It knows how to be provocative, and its anchors are happy to argue with interviewees. It doesn't eschew debate. (If we've learned anything from Jim Cramer's Mad Money, it's that more on-air yelling makes for better ratings.) We can always hope that in the process of having a couple of talking heads argue with each other at top volume, a dialogue will emerge and someone will say something interesting and informative—even if only by accident.

Elizabeth Spiers was the founding editor of both Gawker.com and Dealbreaker.com. Her first novel, And They All Die in the End, will be published by Riverhead.

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