TV outlets struggle to explain fiscal turmoil

The financial crisis is complicated not just by companies that are too big to fail, but numbers that — especially for our news media — are too big to fathom.

Television is a blunt instrument, one driven by story and narrative. As such, the nuances of high finance are beyond the grasp of most cable news talent. As MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann put it on his program, “We’ve all been forced to understand the economy to a greater degree than we did before.”

Some are clearly doing better than others. Put simply, you know how newspeople struggle with topics like TV ratings or polling data, where the significance of modest movement up or down is often wildly overblown? It’s a lot like that, only with money. And it’s showing up in the reporting being done, which frequently tends to focus on relatively small matters in the larger scheme of things.

Let’s face it, most radio rip-and-readers and cable anchors (especially in the daytime) probably didn’t major in advanced mathematics. Moreover, they are coached to be bubbly and energetic, which is generally at odds with thoughtful analysis.

The combination of this with astronomical sums is a prescription for confusion — virtually certain to expunge perspective. As math whiz Nate Silver noted on his site fivethirtyeight.com, the specifics of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s bailout plan is “not the real area of expertise of the people in the room” at a White House press conference.

So what you hear a lot of regarding the stock market are words like “plunge” and “soar,” which should be reserved for those moments when things are genuinely plunging and soaring. Pundits, meanwhile, rail against wasteful congressional earmarks, seldom mentioning that these questionable programs represent an inconsequential drop in a $3-trillion budget bucket.

On a recent weekday, CNN’s T.J. Holmes listened to correspondent Susan Lisovicz try to explain an uptick in housing sales before concluding, “Any time you give me numbers and tell me something’s up instead of down, we will take it.”

The next morning, Fox News’ Jon Scott opened a discussion of President Obama’s primetime news conference on the economy this way: “Give me a letter grade. Not even a sentence.” Ah, letter grades, like they put on restaurants. That we dim-bulb consumers can understand.

The stock ticker scrolls across cable news screens all day, but numbers fly by without much context. As with TV ratings and polls, such data can easily mislead, and the descriptive language is filled with action verbs (“dove,” “plummeted”) and alarm. Key qualifying phrases and modifiers are less sexy, if usually more accurate — words like “relatively,” “adjusted for,” “percentage of” or “inched (up or down).”

One reason the AIG story took off — with the bailed-out insurance giant awarding $165 million in employee bonuses — is that the nine-figure total sounds so gaudy, just as earmarks do. But the media latches onto these developments because they’re so much easier to cast in story form, with “greedy executives” and “corrupt politicians.” That’s a lot simpler than detailing how credit swaps worked.

Enter NBC’s Chris Hansen — he of “To Catch a Predator” renown — who adapted some of the tactics used to expose would-be pedophiles for his two-part “Dateline” report on the financial meltdown. In the second hour, Hansen (with camera crew in tow) descended on a collection agency to confront employees and have doors slammed in his face.

It was all very dramatic, perhaps even cathartic. Yet somehow, embarrassing a few jerks in Buffalo doesn’t quite get to the heart of the problem.

A few of the media’s more sober-minded venues have bucked this trend — including a series of reports from PBS’ “Frontline” and the NPR-“This American Life” collaboration “A Giant Pool of Money.” For the most part, though, these remain glaring exceptions amid a giant pool of blather.

“Two and a Half Men” producer Chuck Lorre once publicly offered “a cool $1 million” and his Mercedes to buy NBC Universal. The joke, of course, was that at first blush, $1 million seems like a lot of cash — unless, that is, you’re bidding for a multinational conglomerate.

The bottom line is that the media appears uncomfortable contextualizing the economic crisis without resorting to its usual bag of tricks. And thanks to that inability to tackle the challenge, the joke might be on all of us.

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