Journalists, Heal Thyselves

As sub par as Retail sales were this holiday season, the Media coverage was even more disappointing. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised, but here it is: The reportage by major media of the holiday season ranged from "not bad" to "pretty awful."

There were all too many column inches that merely repeated Industry press releases; At the same time, there was a surprising dearth of skepticism. Otherwise respectable media morphed into mere dictation
machines. Retail reporting took on the air of relentless cheerleading,
as shopping became a competitive sport.

One would imagine that breathless accounts of 19% year-over-year
gains (wrong again), combined with a god-awful track record of hype and inaccurate
forecasts from the same specific industry sources would raise a few eyebrows amongst the more senior editors. That apparently happened rather infrequently.

Some of the more egregious errors we witnessed were:

Surveys of consumers (NRF) expected shopping budgets were reported as actual retail sales;

Foot traffic (Shopper-trac) was extrapolated to actual sales reciepts; This was reported (for the most part) w/o qualifying the estimated nature of this calculation;

Credit card gains were reported as total sales gains;

The distinction between Mall Stores, Discounters, and Specialty stores numbers were often left ambiguous. Relative size of these different retail outlets was typically omitted;

Given the obvious agendas that various industry trade groups have in promoting a "feel good shopping environment," one would have hoped that there would be more fact checking and verification, and less stenography. Apparently, fact checking is a decreasingly important priority.


As I was scratching my head over some of the more horrifying errors these past weeks, I also came across a related pedantic screed in,of allplaces, the WSJ’s OpEd section: The Blog Mob, written by fools to be read by imbeciles.

Well, let this fool speak to that one particular imbecile:  The writer of this polemic decries the self important blog, the boring predictability, the lack of original reporting. Yet nowhere in his creed does he discuss what blogs actually have evolved to be: An alternative to the decreasing standards, reduced budgets, and corporatization of once separate News divisions of mainstream media.

I guess its the merest of coincidences that blogs have risen, gained traffic, and a small measure of respect concurrent with the decline of media standards and sales. Gee, funny how those things happen.

Anyway, Mr. Clueless bravely opines:

"Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting
the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage.
Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks,
picking at the scraps."

This is the one thing he got right in his entire polemic. There has been a notable dearth of journalists, and their failures have impacted the nation as a whole.

A large part of the Fourth Estate went AWOL after 9/11, becoming timid and weak-kneed. They failed to challenge the status quo, repeated obvious mistruths and falsehoods — okay, outright lies — and generally did not live up to their duty as a watchdog of democracy. (And back in March 2003, I supported the War).

It took the transparent disaster of Katrina to force the media to confront an excessively secretive government with a terrible habit of lying constantly to its citizenry. And not to paint with to broad a brush, 2006 saw a record number of Journalists killed trying to do their jobs.

The irony here is self apparent: Medicore and timid reportage is occurring just as the media is suffering through further declines in readership, viewership, and ad pages. Newsroom budgets
are being pinched even further. We already know that fact-checking
costs money; I wonder how expensive NOT fact checking is in the long

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Discussions found on the web:
  1. Chief Tomahawk commented on Dec 26

    BR, how about issuing your own press release on NRF Christmas Sales forecasts and their accuracy the day before the NRF puts out their 2007 edition? It could make for an interesting day of discussion and interviews on the otherwise autopilot CNBC program…

  2. Barry Ritholtz commented on Dec 26

    My job is to point out where others are releasing bad information, cheerleading, not doing their jobs.

    We can disagree about lots of stuff — bull or bear, recession or soft landing — but I believe that everyone who comes here wants to see the reporting process be legitimate and respectable, be it NAR, NRF, BLS or what have you.

    The NRF is a classic example of an industry spokesgroup doing their job — putting out happy talk / filler, such as their surveys asking people how much they plan to spend — which the media then incorrectly reports as if it were actual sales data.

    I prefer Reality to Fantasy, at least when it comes to this data . . .

  3. Felix commented on Dec 26

    Barry, if you’re going to complain about journalists, PLEASE link to the articles you’re complaining about. Just waving your hands and complaining about “the Media” is much less compelling than if you actually point to actual articles which commmit the sins you claim to see so frequently.

  4. dblwyo commented on Dec 26

    Ahem, actually he did link to the WSJ Opinion article which is very sad and in sharp contrast to Alan Murray’s coverage mid last-year vis a’ vis the TWX wars w/Ichan and the debate over managing old media to new media. So far (IMHO) there’s a clear role for both since Bloggers can’t afford the feet on the street for news gathering but have done, suitably filtered in some cases, a real service in interpretation and analysis. One can point of course to BP or Calculated Risk. Mankiw’s blog (which I found out about here) is both a real, time/energy draining service and has proven very influential, e.g. the Pigou Club.

    The media is on the cusp of the biggest changes in it’s operating and business models in over a century yet seems to be in denial. The real question is how will they evolve ?

    Being defensive while also getting the facts wrong won’t help them.

  5. dblwyo commented on Dec 26

    Barry – given the lack of insight and analysis on Retail Sales AND that most of the Street, investment and general business communities looks only at the headlines instead there’d seem to be a real opportunity for reality checks. Even more importantly if the ‘data’ are being so badly mis-read what does that say about the economic prospects ? And the resulting market outlook ?

  6. jj commented on Dec 26

    Keep fighting the good fight Barry

    you’ve elucidated many of the faults and poor reporting of very important data points

  7. KP commented on Dec 26

    Reporting the news is a privilege and a public service. Or least it should be. Bias, and inaccuracies are becoming increasingly noisy. No doubt because of capitalistic motives. Bias isn’t so hard to spot, most times. The data manipulation is really starting to piss me off though.

    I say we mandate that all news agencies must be non-profits.

  8. Anthony Lawrence commented on Dec 26


    Nice piece, and great to see an intelligent counterpoint to the MSM. Bloggers are picking up the ball dropped by “real journalists”


  9. Michael C. commented on Dec 26

    I say we mandate that all news agencies must be non-profits.

    That will probably have the opposite effect and end up decreasing the quality of news coverage even more.

    It’s up to us as consumers/viewers/readers to flock to the highest quality sources, be it profit or non-profit.

  10. Barry Ritholtz commented on Dec 26

    There’s far too many “bad” articles to point to, and besides, I am not looking to embarrass anyone (who I may have to work with in the future).

    As to the particularly good articles, let’s use the War as an example: the WSJ, Knight-Ridder, and Christian Science Monitor were especially good in their early gloves off reporting. Hard hitting, fearless, fact based, informative. THATS what media is supposed to provide.

  11. ECONOMISTA NON GRATA commented on Dec 26

    We live in a world of spin. So far as I am concerned, the credibility of the mainstream media is as it has always been and shall always be, in question. We have been hard wired to believe in the authority of the mainstream press.

    Brand names such as the WSJ and Economist are just that, brand names.

    “real journalists”….?, don’t make me laugh…

    Thanks Barry…!


  12. GRL commented on Dec 26

    Unlike with the mainstream media, if you are a blogger and are wrong, you will get your head handed to you by anyone who happens to know the facts you are claiming to report/discuss, not to mention sued if what you are saying qualifies as libel (e.g., lies about non-public figures).

    Mainstream media types get their articles “fact checked” and vetted by their “editorial boards.”

    It’s kind of like Wikipedia: on the micro level, any given article might be wrong, but, at the macro level, the collective does a pretty good job of making sure the errors get corrected.

  13. BayAreaGuy commented on Dec 26


    Why are you even giving this nutcase any attention at all? I subscribe to the WSJ and read it every day, but studiously avoid the editorial page which seems to be written by right wing fascists (their epitaph on the death of Pinochet: “He brought democracy to Chile”). Fortunately, the WSJ reporting staff appears to be a separate entity and, by and large, does a credible job of reporting the real economic news.

  14. Felix commented on Dec 26

    If your purpose here is to save individuals from any embarrassment, one wonders what you’re doing blogging in the first place. I rail against journalistic innumeracy as much as anybody, but I don’t go tarring “The Media” in general with any brushes. Blogs can act as an excellent corrective to bad journalism, but only if they point to individual examples. If they stay on a vague, generalist level then they risk coming off as merely ideological.

  15. Brion commented on Dec 26

    Blog on!
    “…they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks”

    Wrong fish (mammal-whatever).
    Modern MSM more like a big bloated slooow moving WHALE.
    At the point where newsfotainment has pretty much completely taken over the airwaves along comes web 2….
    with all these pesky people who actually still give a shit about things like the difference between propaganda and objective Truth. People who are actually quite adept in their own fields of interest who have suddenly aquired quite effective soapboxes.
    Yeah, they “ride along” but they are also beginning to help steer the damn thing and that is a very good, very democratic and a very healthy thing. Also, considering America’s drift toward 24/7 bullshit these last 6 years, Web 2 came along just in time.

  16. BDG123 commented on Dec 26

    I’ve met that guy, Mr. Clueless. He’s very active. He works for nearly every major news source in the US. I’ve never figured out how he works so many places and such long hours. He must be a workaholic.

    I vote he take a vacation. A permanent one.

  17. Brion commented on Dec 26

    “the credibility of the mainstream media is as it has always been and shall always be, in question. We have been hard wired to believe in the authority of the mainstream press.”

    You’re a youngster aren’t you.
    If we have been hard wired to believe in the authority of the mainstream press it’s because, believe it or not, the MSM once legitimately wielded that Authority.

    A healthy Democracy REQUIRES a free (and diligent) press. People used to realize that to a much greater extent and no, the credibility of the MSM has NOT always been in question. Walter Cronkite ( a tv anchor in the 50’s 60’s 70’s) was the most trusted man in America.

    Katie Couric? errr, not so trusted.

  18. Barry Ritholtz commented on Dec 26


    My “purpose” here is to post on subjects that I find interesting or intriguing; these are often extensions of research in progress from the office, to kick around ideas, to generally explore concepts that don’t get all that much coverage otherwise.

    The goals here are not to be a Poynter Online or a CJR.

    I have in the past pointed to some pretty awful coverage, and you can track them down by working backwards thru the links in the prior post (Holiday Sales Fall Short).

    But that is really secondary to what I aim for around: Getting to the truth of what is going on, despite the spin and cheerleading that comes from Wall Street, the Government, Trade Groups, bubble vision, and yes, the MSM itself.

  19. Si commented on Dec 26

    yep, mainstream media are next to useless these days, stopped watching bubble vision years ago, one of the best things I have done. Noticed I don’t read papers or listen to TV news much these days too. It all feels kind of packaged and cleaned for public consumption these days, full of fluff with nothing real to say.

  20. zell commented on Dec 26

    Just go back to the 12/24 linkfest and click on Cramer to get a quick taste of the media.

  21. JuanBobsDad commented on Dec 26

    Even if it is correct, the major news outlets’ reportage is insufferably superficial. Blogs are about the only place that people are digging down into the meat of matters. Ci!, Si – I’m with you.

  22. CDizzle commented on Dec 26

    All I can say is that I’m shorting BBY…again…

    …this post may be more relevant in the previous thread…

  23. lee commented on Dec 26

    I agree with Rago on this:
    1. There are bad, but popular blogs (not BP, of course)
    2. Political blogs are annoying and boring (to me)
    3. I find some blogs tend to be homogeneous, except for the BP, of course.

    But you know what, who cares??? Most bloggers are not professional writers. But, blogs are mediums of expression. The more honest, the better. I have more respect for that than some critic and his puffy language.

  24. muckdog commented on Dec 26

    The “mainstream” media has always presented what they think the people want to hear. Now people can point and click. According to Yahoo’s Buzz, people aren’t on the web looking for news about Iraq or Bush’s wiretapping, either. And yes, maybe I am personally responsible for many of the clicks resulting in Kelly Hu being ranked 10 in the Buzz Index.

    I think the print media is almost dead because of the internet. Of course, folks with pre-conceived opinions may just search out opinion blogs that reinforce their own point of view. I can claim that the economy is great, and link to Kudlow as proof. That’s what many do.

    Of course, the internet is also a great fact-checking tool for those who are interested. No longer do folks have to sit in front of the tube and argue for 3 hours “What college did Tony Romo go to?”

    Ah, “Kelly Hu pictures” just sayin’…

  25. blam commented on Dec 26

    pedantic screed – phrase of the day

    The WSJ editorial is crap – an agenda. The page is usually well worth the read.

    Blogs are evolving – there is still too much anectodal commentary. However, the main stream press has been caged and fed. That’s what happens when the FCC allows industry concentration. Murdoch, GE, etc are wraiths with an agenda. One more casualty of the “neo-conservative terrorist protection team”.

    Barry, you have touched on the single most important issue of this period in history, the decline of the free press. Do not let the crap that has been contributed here dissuade you, you’re right. The television media, and any newspaper associated with the oligopoly, has gone tabloid. The NY and LA Times, WAPost are still pitching, but they are under duress.

    Michael Powell was a disaster, pandering to the big money like a pet. He’s not the first guy from the neighborhood to be seduced. And neither was Colin.

    Thanks for the blog.

  26. Eclectic commented on Dec 27

    The quality bloggers are the ones that allow contrary opinion to be expressed openly (they may even invite it), as long as it’s civil and appropriate to the discussion.

    That’s the mark of character in my view.

    However, character is not an attribute of the news itself.

    By this I mean that I don’t care if the person who reports news to me is a person of otherwise poor character (or has an opinion far contrary to mine about any subject) even if it’s a person I don’t like, but I only care if what that person reports to me is something I can rely on.

    For me to be able to rely on them as a commentator, they have to have enough respect for themselves that they won’t distort the news. I also don’t mind when opinion is labeled as just that… opinion. I don’t even mind when a trade advocate uses the news in a way to promote his own or his members’ perspective… as long as he’s honorable enough to openly state his obvious bias, and then I can weigh the importance of what he has to say. The problem is when opinion is distorted and recklessly reported as the news itself.

    Consequently, for example, when econometric news is simply “headlined” incorrectly and then lazily rote copied throughout the industry for the jake of editorial efficiency, they accomplish far more harm to the first amendment than they may realize at the time.

    Because ultimately “truth” is the great protector of the first amendment, not the freedom some utilize to spin the truth to suite their own interests. When the truth gets spun routinely, freedom is soon to be in danger… and that’s from the tyranny of either the Left or the Right.

    I also will contribute that blogging is not really new. It’s existed for years in the editorial pages of magazines and newspapers and in radio and TV commentary, mostly political. The “comments section” occurs in the letters to the editor prints, if there are any and they’re limited of course, and the nature of blogger return comments (which BR likened to characterizations by number) bear a striking similarity to typical radio talk show comments I’ve heard for all of my life. No… blogging isn’t new, not really.

    Blogging has just merely been opened up to the masses more efficiently through the Internet, at the speed of light.

    The author of the WSJ piece seems to object to instantaneity in blogging. I could imagine a reasonable person having any number of complaints about blogging (some of his I possibly agree with), but nobody interested in the truth could possible object to the rapidity with which it is reported.

  27. retired commented on Dec 27

    Great blog on finacial matters and your personal opinions on politics. However, you might want to give us the facts when you discuss your politics so that we can make an informed decision. The media gives us headlines and tradgedy—public broadcast is the only news hour worth watching. As far as presidents lying to us about war, history has shown that every president has slanted the facts to their own agenda(german u boats off new york,bay of pigs, gulf of tonkin,bosnia mass murders, etc etc)

  28. wunsacon commented on Dec 27

    >>>>I say we mandate that all news agencies must be non-profits.

    >>That will probably have the opposite effect and end up decreasing the quality of news coverage even more.

    The quality of PBS and BBC news suggest KP’s intuition is correct.

    Once someone stands to gain a lot of money from news content (while acting as the broker between eyeballs and advertisers), it’s in that person’s interest to alter the content.

    A problem is: what constitutes “news”? Would the Daily Show have to be non-profit? This question isn’t fatal, however, because our laws often deal with boundary questions. (Legislators leave those questions to the courts.) Perhaps, this should be one of those boundary questions.

    I think KP’s suggestion should deserve more consideration.

    >>It’s up to us as consumers/viewers/readers to flock to the highest quality sources, be it profit or non-profit.

    Then we’re doomed. TV news is awful. Yet, so many people watch it. And I question whether blogs will necessarily be better. Perhaps, as the mainstream moves to the web, the web will dumb down. (E.g., now web sites want to show us “video” news instead of text.)

  29. Chad commented on Dec 27

    MSM grows less relevant every day. They have no plan to combat their decline.

    If they really want to get a whiff of their irrelevance, wait until the Presidential election of 2008.

    However, what really bothers me has less to do with MSM and more to do with the dumbing down of America. We as a population seem to be more interested in celebrity prattle than keeping a democratic republic afloat and accountable.

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