Subprime Time

Watching the financial networks during the meltdown.

Bloomberg’s Deirdre Bolton

With Monday having gone down as Wall Street’s bleakest day since the 1987 crash, Tuesday rated as the hairiest in the history of the financial news networks. It was business as unusual, with the journalists of burnished CNBC, gaudy Fox Business, and dapper little Bloomberg variously barking with compensatory confidence and squirming abjectly, asking for frank assessments and pleading for Panglossian answers, quelling panic and reflecting it. Perhaps CNBC’s Dennis Kneale, showing his sensitive side and feeling bullish about catharsis, made the best show of converting hysteria into a laugh line: “It’s awfully scary out there, so what should you do with your money? I think you should cry over it.” 

That was around 1 p.m. on Power Lunch. The Dow was bouncing back, and Kneale’s colleague Bob Pisani, diligently parsing the weirdness of traders basing their decisions on the most fleeting illusions of political winds, was starting to run out of synonyms for weird. “We’re in a bizarre world,” he had said. “Are we in a strange world or what?” he would yet say. It is quite a peculiar world indeed, thought the viewer, when a channel promises man-on-the-street reactions from “Main Street” and then delivers vox pops taped in downtown Manhattan.

CNBC introduced a few such segments to the strains of a horror-show score, a snippet of apprehensive violins. At the bottom of the screen in the chyron, the network asked, “Is Your Money Safe?” This was the central question of the day, and one that CNBC tended to address with thoroughness and sobriety, but it was being posed in a font—grotty, rotted-out, fit for the opening credits of some apocalyptic thriller or lurid prison documentary—that implied that your money was presently being excreted by cash-eating bacteria.

Meanwhile, the Fox Business Network ran promos razzing CNBC for slacking in its coverage over the weekend. Fox boasted, “We own this story.” (On the off chance it actually does, would not Tuesday have been a good time to sell?) Being the financial news network most directly engaged with politics, Fox cut, around 11 a.m., to John McCain on the campaign trail in Iowa, where he gave Main Street a meat-and-potatoes lecture on the credit crisis. Being the financial news network most directly engaged in propaganda, Fox followed the speech with analysis claiming that McCain was “really getting into the nitty-gritty” in the talk, when really the senator had not dared to say anything that might surprise the most average freshman in the most remedial macroeconomics course. Being the financial news network furthest down-market, Fox soon thereafter ran a commercial for a gizmo that hones the blades of disposable razors.

The network was a bit at odds with itself. The screens behind the anchor desk counted away at an indignant “rescue watch.” Pardon me: “RE$CUE WATCH.” At 11:15 a.m., it had been “1 Day, 16:15:30” since, like, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi had ordered the release of the money-eating supergerms and then commenced to cackle. Meanwhile, in front of the screen, anchor Dagen McDowell was fixing a smile bright as searchlights at the camera, as if trying to restore consumer confidence through the exuberant baring of optimistic teeth. Like her Fox colleagues and the CNBC competition, she seemed more than slightly frazzled and wired—a messenger unwillingly getting accustomed to the sensation of being shot at. Send in your e-mails, she implored viewers, “even if it’s hate mail! Just don’t make it threats!”

The mood at Bloomberg was notably more subdued, with academics offering cool reason, investors soberly pushing the “remarketing” of the failed bailout bill, and the understated stock ticker crawling with good news in suave green. (Compare this with Fox’s garish neoclassical looks or CNBC’s silver graphical bling and the sound-effect whoosh of its incoming updates.) And anchor Deirdre Bolton was a revelation in a tweed blazer. On the Monday of “Wall Street’s free fall”—those were Bolton’s words, said with a steel you want to hang onto—Vanity Fair released a profile of CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo and Erin Burnett that gapes at the extent to which business television has become a babe game. (“On the floor of the N.Y.S.E., the Fox women are referred to as ‘the Foxtrots,’ says the producer of a rival network, because ‘they trot around the floor in unbelievably unprofessional clothing.’ “) Boys, if you prefer your financial journalism delivered pulchritudinously, but if the crass tartiness of the Foxtrots only turns your thoughts to plumbing (the need to make yourself clean again, the urge to hose off their makeup), then do tune into Bloomberg’s In Focus, co-hosted by capable Bolton and her fabulous cheekbones.

But I suspect that superstardom will elude Bolton, that she is destined to remain a coterie item, as this subset of TV news has a rather particular sense of subtlety. The mood at CNBC’s investment-cheerleading show Mad Money was also relatively subdued on Tuesday. Host Jim Cramer went easy on punctuating his pro-speculation monologue with sound effects (machine-gun fire, Handel’s Messiah). In abusing a toy bird—his way of attacking, in effigy, the parrots of conventional wisdom—he restrained himself to stabbing the thing and working it over with a hatchet and chewing on its head. Turning to the theme of intestinal distress, Jim Cramer merely doused a Jim Cramer bobble-head doll with liquid antacid. On business TV, the potential for a second Great Depression is nothing to worry about. The only thing we have to fear is mania.