Self-Absorbed Media Missing the Biggest Story of Our Time

Sure, We Can Talk About Who Said What About Lipstick, but Now's a Good Time to Refocus the Conversation

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I stopped near the Stock Exchange on my walk home last Monday night and watched a CNBC production crew setting up a "Crisis on Wall Street" special. They were circling a grim-faced Maria Bartiromo, who was slumped over in a director's chair next to the statue of George Washington outside Federal Hall. The neon glare of the TV lights threw the rest of Wall Street into gloomy relief and made long shadows of the finance guys trudging past.

The usually chirpy newspaper guy was sullen. "Whatever you say, this was a 158-year-old institution," he said, zeroing in on the end of Lehman Bros., rather than the end of Merrill Lynch as an independent, the crisis at AIG, plummeting profits at Goldman or the Dow's 500-point drop. "Do you think this is rock bottom?" I asked. "It'd better be," said the guy standing alongside me at the newsstand. "We've only got two banks left."

I live down on Wall Street, and there is an inescapable sense that these are end times for a business district that was the nerve center of an empire just a decade ago.

While my friends in investment banking have long been amazed and confused by the boom in complex derivative products, they had no idea of the scale of the risk-ridden debt their companies had taken on. Some are now left wondering how they're going to make their own mortgage payments. They're luckier in monetary terms than many other Americans, but are just as much victims of their employers' hubris and the country's lax, anachronistic regulatory systems as a manufacturing town is of a global economic system that renders its labor too costly and thus irrelevant.

Still there can be a positive in this mess, if we hear the alarm bell and confront the real challenge -- the need to rebuild the American economy for the 21st century.

In these past 18 months, we've heard endless punditry on politicians' personalities from people who seem to be even more divorced from the voting public than the politicians they cover.

The marketing of the candidates, which used to be the domain of Advertising Age and company, has sometimes threatened to become the whole story. One badly made ad with no media budget is now talked up and analyzed as if it's headline news.

Not once have I picked up a newspaper or turned on a broadcast to find a lengthy discussion of how America is going to educate and retrain its citizens to make them competitive in a digitized, globalized economy. Not once have I seen a thorough analysis of what exactly is going to replace the country's rapidly disappearing manufacturing sector. No one outside a handful of people in the business media had -- until last Monday -- given serious time to how we should handle the dissolution of the investment banks, one of the nation's leading wealth-creating institutions. Seems like important stuff, but it's been upstaged by a futile discussion of who said what about lipstick.

In the past month or so I've heard speeches from smart, passionate leaders such as Bill Clinton and Jeff Immelt. And you didn't have to see 24 hours of cable news analysis afterwards to get what they were saying. They said that in terms of broadband and transport infrastructure America is falling far behind many other developed nations. Or that, when it comes to 21st-century energy policy and commitment to environmental change, nations such as China and Germany have long-term plans to make green from green -- the U.S. doesn't.

The media will continue to chase ratings, and I'm not saying there isn't a place and time to analyze unaccomplished celebrities who forgot to don panties. But now would be a really good time for the deeply discredited media to start asking important questions about this country's future.
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