When Is a Sell-Off a Sell-Off?

One can only assume that working at CNBC these days is not as fun as it used to be. For starters, there’s not much good news to report. Add to that the increasing blame-the-media drumbeat in the ongoing search for villains in the unwinding of the 1990s bull market. Still, it’s days like today when the big stock indexes all plunge into the red—and today we had the added attraction of the Nasdaq breaking downward through the 2,000 level—that CNBC’s viewership goes up, and I was among those tuning in this afternoon. What I observed, in the attempt to make some sense of today’s negatives, was a curious discrepancy.

Shortly after the close came the voice-over introducing the post-bell reports, “From CNBC, this is coverage of the market sell-off.” Not 60 seconds later, CNBC’s Bob Pisani was explaining that, actually, what happened today was not a sell-off at all. Volume was about average and did not experience the big spike usually associated with investors “running for the exit” and flooding the markets with a high number of sell orders. Actually, Pisani said, the number of sell orders wasn’t high, but there was what he called “a buyer’s strike,” meaning that the steep price falls were attributable to a dearth of demand.

To some extent this is semantics. But it would seem that Pisani has a reasonable point: that there is a difference between a drop caused by high numbers of people wanting out of the market and one caused by low numbers of people wanting in at these prices. Fine. But as the network moved away from Pisani and on to whomever else was up next, the words “Market Sell-Off” emblazoned the screen.

So what’s the deal? Does the network not buy Pisani’s logic? Does news of a “sell-off” just sound sexier? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Then again, if we find ourselves a year or two down the road looking back and blaming the financial press for the burst just as we’re currently blaming it for the bubble, perhaps some clever second-guesser will find a way to argue that CNBC is guilty all over again—this time, of hyping the downside. So maybe the network figures that this way it’s covered, no matter what happens next, by calling today’s action a sell-off and giving air time to a correspondent who says it isn’t.