In mid-October, the morning after the Dow Industrial Average topped the 10,000 mark for the first time in ages, a young, energetic TV reporter for the Fox Business Network (FBN) named Sandra Smith briefed Don Imus and his viewers on the state of the markets. She does this a couple times an hour, every morning. Stock index futures were up, she said. Ditto various earning reports. Things were banging.
“In about 15 minutes, we’ve got the big earnings coming out from Goldman Sachs,” said Ms. Smith. “Some say that they’re gonna knock the ball off the cover, and it’s going to be a blow-away earnings report.”
Mr. Imus corrected Ms. Smith’s language. The proper idiom, he noted, firmly and paternally, was to knock the cover off the ball. As for the excitement over Goldman Sachs’ record earnings, Mr. Imus sounded skeptical. He said he’d been reading Matt Taibbi, author of “Inside the Great American Bubble Machine,” the piece in Rolling Stone that famously groin-kicked Goldman Sachs. And, besides, unemployment remained disgustingly high. “The only guys who are making any money are the wise guys on Wall Street, right?” said Mr. Imus.
The Fox Business Network turned two years old this month. And there is arguably no better way to get a distilled vision of where the channel has been, and where it might be headed, than by watching the daily back-and-forth banter between Ms. Smith and Mr. Imus.
On the one hand there is Ms. Smith, who joined the network for its launch in October 2007. She is sunny, blond, blue-eyed, manicured, glossy, optimistic, self-assured, radiant.
A money honey wed to a curmudgeonly dad: Such are the necessities of TV financial journalism in 2009.
On the other, there is Mr. Imus, who joined the network earlier this month. He is 69 years old, dark, dour, stormy, self-destructive, gruff, weathered.
It’s an arranged marriage between a vivacious market enthusiast and a grouchy, market skeptic, between a money honey and a curmudgeonly dad. They make an odd couple. But such a union is perfectly in keeping with the uncertain hot-and-cold, giddy-and-despairing state of the U.S. economy.
WHEN MS. SMITH started at FBN two years ago, she was part of a crowded class of up-and-coming go-getters (Alexis Glick, Jenna Lee, Cody Willard, Nicole Petallides, Connell McShane and on and on) who were all of a type. This crowd, predominantly female, was full of fresh-faced, forward-looking optimism, and seemingly engineered by FBN chief Roger Ailes to ride effortlessly from one market high to the next and look damn good doing it. None of which was surprising, given Mr. Ailes’ professional history. In 1991, he helped NBC Universal launch its financial news network, CNBC. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Ailes took a smart, attractive, young producer named Maria Bartiromo and put her in front of the camera. It was the early ’90s. The economy was coming out of a deep freeze. And as the markets heated up, Ms. Bartiromo shone, quickly turning into the brightest star in financial journalism.
As Mr. Ailes prepared to launch FBN on behalf of Rupert Murdoch in 2007, the markets were going wild again. A few weeks after the Dow closed at its all-time high of 14,164, the network celebrated its debut with a roaring party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The hormonal buzz of rapidly expanding net worth hung in the air. Celebrities mingled, here and there, while the next generation of money honeys—all surely inspired by Ms. Bartiromo—strutted among them. Cody Willard, a handsome, 35-year-old hipster ex–hedge fund manager, who had just been made co-anchor of the network’s 5 p.m. hour, gazed at the Temple of Dendur and spoke of FBN’s ambition. “We’re trying to take over the world,” he said.
But before FBN could achieve world domination (or the lesser ambition of putting up ratings anywhere close to those of rival CNBC), the real estate bubble burst. The economy crashed. And suddenly FBN executives found themselves holding a long position on young, sunny TV talent amid a tanking economy. What is a financial news network to do in a bear market for money honeys?
HISTORICALLY, BUSINESS REPORTING tends to be somewhat bipolar, with the mood swinging wildly depending on the state of the economy. Josh Quittner, the Time columnist and managing editor of On magazine, recently told The Observer that business news always travels between two extreme poles—celebrity making (during boom times) and hard-core service journalism (during busts). Throughout the dot-com era, said Mr. Quittner, you could slap the face of any young tech entrepreneur on the cover of your magazine, and people would scoop it up. Everyone is a genius until everyone goes broke.
“It’s understandable that when Fox launched two years ago in a more optimistic time with a little bit more sizzle in the economy, they were willing to take more chances and put attractive young faces on TV,” said Mr. Quittner. “That’s not what works during downtimes. Then, the opposite works.”
In recessions, business consumers want sage knowledge, advice, expertise and experience. Grizzled wisdom becomes more attractive than tenderfooted exuberance. “People are looking for a way out,” said Mr. Quittner. “They’re not buying, say, business magazines for the crossword puzzles or the pictures of pretty girls. They buy it because they want to make money. It’s very straightforward. What works is the opposite of sexy.”
In recent months, in a series of high-profile moves, Fox Business executives have seemingly embraced that concept: the opposite of sexy.
First, they added Don Imus, the resurrected radio host with no real expertise in business but with a loyal following of fans. Then, last month, they hired John Stossel, the 62-year-old investigative correspondent with a libertarian bent, away from his longtime home at ABC News. And recently, according to The New York Times, Lou Dobbs, the 64-year-old CNN anchor, was seen dining with Mr. Ailes, feeding speculation that he also will eventually join FBN. (The last opinionated anchor from the Time Warner Center who was reported to be seen dining with Mr. Ailes was Glenn Beck—who, shortly thereafter, joined Fox News.)
If Ms. Smith, Connell McShane, and Jenna Lee are a type, so too are Mr. Imus, Mr. Stossel and Mr. Dobbs. To their fans, they are lovable grouches who covey a reassuring sense of hard-earned insight. If life has made them a touch cranky, it has also made them skeptical of snake-oil hustlers, tough on government scoundrels and unafraid of picking fights. They are 60-somethings, with independent streaks, who have seen bad times and fought their way through.
Still, the advent of the high-profile, elder libertarian statesman at FBN provides a supplement to the money honeys, not a replacement. When Mr. Imus’ show debuted in October, two of the partially displaced anchors, Ms. Lee and Mr. McShane (both young, talented and easy on the eyes), didn’t disappear. They, along with Ms. Smith, began providing business updates on Imus in the Morning. And when in November of 2008, in the wake of the imploding economy, FBN tweaked its 5 p.m. after-market bar-side chatfest, Happy Hour, they didn’t get rid of the young, attractive co-hosts, Rebecca Diamond and Cody Willard. They simply added a seasoned chaperon: Eric Bolling, an older Wall Street veteran, nicknamed “the Admiral.”
In other words, even in a crap economy, the bulk of financial reporting on TV is destined to remain in the hands of beautiful people. “There are still going to be plenty of young guys at Fox and CNBC who are running around saying the bulls are running loose, and everything is going right, and the Dow is above 10,000, and don’t get pissed at Goldman Sachs, those guys rule!” former CNN producer and TV critic Chez Pazienza recently told The Observer. “But no matter how hard you push that, there are also going to be people who are watching who are out of work. You have to balance that out.”
Call it a market correction—and one that is still in progress, as both sides of the equation get to know one another. At one point on Thursday morning, Mr. Imus said that he had been watching FBN the previous day at the very moment when the Dow topped 10,000. “Who is the woman who’s down there on the floor for us?” said Mr. Imus.
“Our very fine reporter Nicole Petallides,” answered Ms. Smith.
“She is good,” said Mr. Imus. “Well, I was watching all of them. I forget who was on. Liz or somebody was on. It was all very exciting.”
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