Media Matters: It's the economy, stupid!

Is financial journalese giving you the jitters? You're not alone.

I don't know about you, but when I see fractions, ratios and percentage points heading a page, I tend to turn it. This is why the one section of the papers I admit to putting aside "for later" is business, and why, when I happen upon Israel Radio's "Tzeva Hakesef" [the color of money], I flick the dial. My brash admission of this boorish practice has always been a defense mechanism against feeling inferior to all those around me who seem to understand immediately what it means in general - and for them in particular - when, say, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer announces he is lowering the interest rate. Or why this has an effect on the value of the shekel. Since misery loves company, I comfort myself with the assumption that there are many more people out there who are equally clueless when it comes to currencies, the NASDAQ and the Tel-Tech index. Indeed, to quote a successful small business owner in Jerusalem, who claims he has begun to suffer from the global financial crisis: "I wouldn't know a stock if one hit me over the head." It is precisely for this reason that I couldn't help wondering this week why all the Hebrew dailies and broadcasts suddenly "moved Wall Street to Main Street," by pushing their financial coverage to the top of the news, and thus downplaying almost every other story. To be sure, Israel is finding itself a little more affected by the global crisis than was originally reported. Thousands of workers, mainly in the hi-tech sector that is reliant on the US market, have been laid off. The trickle-down effect is starting to take its toll. In addition, there is fear on the part of the general public over its pensions - which Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini is fanning by casting doubt on the "safety net" being spread out by the Treasury. It is no wonder, then, that the media is milking this mayhem for all it's worth, so to speak, no matter how minor it really is in the greater scheme of things. This is especially so, since one thing all members of the public have in common is cash-flow concern, which means that Channels 1 and 10 might actually manage to compete temporarily with Big Brother for a different kind of "interest rate." It thus makes editorial sense to show green grocers groaning about how their customers "used to think nothing of stocking up on papayas and other delicacies," while now "they think for half-an-hour before they buy a cucumber" - or academics on the unemployment line, expressing great worry over the prospect of their finding jobs commensurate with their levels of education and experience. But what makes little or no sense at all is that such human-interest items have been relegated to the inside pages and later ends of broadcasts, giving far more prominence to economic jargon, illustrated with graphs and charts. In the first place, it's a lot more boring this way for the majority of the viewers and readers. In the second, precisely because the commentary is often incomprehensible, its repetition creates, or at least contributes to, the sense not only that something ominous is happening at present, but that far worse is in store. This sets the stage for an atmosphere of malaise - one that takes on a momentum of its own. Proof of this lies in the fact that as soon as the charts began appearing, the public started to panic - so much so that when the motherboard of Bank Hapoalim's main computer had a temporary malfunction, and customers were unable to perform simple transactions via ATM, rumors began flying to the effect that the bank went belly-up. It is worth noting that a mere week ago, when the Alperon slaying was the talk of the town, and politicians' polka towards primaries running a close second, the small businessman I mentioned earlier had the TV in his establishment tuned in to Big Brother. And now we are all focused on the terrorist attacks in India. WHICH BRINGS us to the age-old question of the media's role with regard to the national mood. Does the press reflect it, or determine what it will - or should - be? The answer is that it's usually a combination of the two. Where the economy is concerned, however, it seems to lean towards the latter. Now, I may know little about economics in general and the stock market in particular, but one thing I have learned is that psychology plays as much a part in fluctuations as actual events. The very idea that others may start pulling their money out of the TASE, or shifting their savings plans from one type of framework to another, is enough to cause investors to follow suit. The same applies to simple spending habits. It is enough for average people to be fearful about the future of their employment conditions, their savings accounts and pension funds to cause them to "think before buying a cucumber." And it is people's buying and selling habits - in the market or the marketplace - that keep the economy going. It is also what keeps economists and financial commentators going, especially during times of instability. It is during such times, after all, that they are plummeted from the "pink pages" onto the panels of the main channels. This means, of course, that it's not entirely in their interest to assuage anxiety. They, like the rest of us, have their careers to consider, and their own cucumbers to purchase. The good news is that they are not always the most reliable oracles. The fact is that no one predicted the current crash until it was well on its way. And speaking of forecasts, I am reminded of an exchange that took place many years ago, between my four-year-old son and my mother, after watching the evening news together on TV. When the weather report was over, he thought for a moment and then asked his grandmother, "How do they know what the sun and the clouds are going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next day?" "They don't, that's how they do," she said.