Sensationalist media may be magnifying our market fears

By John J. Metzler, Special to The China Post

UNITED NATIONS — “Everyone has felt the earthquake on Wall Street, but it has not shaken our resolve,” stated Ban Ki-Moon, bravely adding, “Banks may be failing, but the world’s bottom billion can bank on us.”

Resolute words from the U.N. Secretary General in the midst of a global financial crisis which not only threatens to slash aid to the poor, but to push many middle income countries into the abyss, and to pull developed countries into the doldrums. Beyond the often arcane market fundamentals, the slew of shameless corporate incompetents, and global stock markets looking like an medical EKG, I have the nagging suspicion that many of the problems, while certainly not caused by the sensationalist media, are probably partially magnified by it. What was an economic downturn has morphed into a recession. While business cycles are seldom mentioned, terms like “recession,” and sometimes “depression,” often fly around like autumn leaves, only to be blown away by the next gust of the bad news de jour.

Angst is a wonderfully descriptive German word which sums up part of the problem. Fear. Namely what the Oxford English dictionary defines as “a profound feeling of anxiety or dread.” Its origins date to the 1920’s when there was plenty of angst about hyper-inflation of a few million percent, which wiped out savings, ruined the middle class, and paved the way for dictatorship. The gloom and doom scenario is fed by the 24-hour news cycle with constant jabbering, opinion, and moving market tickers. Back in 1929 and the start of the Great Depression, the media consisted of many newspapers with morning and evening editions, the radio, and news tickers. Information moved well but not too quickly. Even during the previous October 1987 downturn, the 24-hour media outlets were fewer, and even with fax machines were still not able to keep up the drumbeat of doom. But today, like an energizer bunny, we have Bloomberg, CNBC, Fox Business, and a plethora of cable networks, all delivered by TV, radio, the Internet, blogs, and Blackberry. Add the major media networks — ABC, CBS, NBC — who while rightly covering the crisis, at the same time are maintaining the crescendo and fueling a corrosive anxiety through information overload with the special effects of an ongoing presidential election. People who invest in the stock markets will look to these programs, or to their Blackberries to get a stock quote, usually not good, and they then, like someone with a high blood pressure reading, immediately take another reading only to get even worse numbers. Angst. Read the papers between the lines and see a host of sensational stories: AIG executives going on a $440,000 corporate spa retreat only days after their $85 billion U.S. taxpayer bailout; the petro-dollar rich Russians literally buying a chunk of Iceland; nations in the European Union acting like Europeans before the Union; Japanese markets having their biggest fall in 20 years; South Korea’s once-robust economy in crisis. Angst.