Do TV pundits shed light on financial crisis?

By David Bauder

CNBC is enjoying its best month ever in daytime ratings.

NEW YORK — This financial crisis has really redefined the notion of “talking heads.” On business news channel CNBC, at any one time, 10 of them can be crowding the screen, to the point that it looks like a school picture come to life.

That’s one way the financial-oriented media is trying to capture attention and, during Wall Street’s turmoil, squeeze profits from gloom.

Now, 24 hours a day, there are television spots, blog posts and news sites all clamoring for investors’ attention. Some say that’s only adding to the market’s volatility by repeating ideas that often don’t deserve mention and giving credibility to sources who pump their own interests.

“What the 24-hour news coverage does is it creates the currency of momentum,” said Mark Collinson, a partner in CCG Investor Relations. “In the old days, you might have picked up the Wall Street Journal and read about something. Now it’s blasted at you 20 times by 5 o’clock.”

People are looking for answers. Do they hear only noise?

“If you watch television for anything other than entertainment, then you’re losing money,” said Barry Ritholz, CEO and director of equity research for Fusion IQ and author of “Bailout Nation: How Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy.”

Whether propelled primarily by personal or professional investors — or merely the curious who are watching the market like a wild sporting event — CNBC is on pace to have its best month ever in daytime ratings. The Fox Business Channel, which has struggled to make its presence felt since being launched a year ago, hit the 100,000 mark in viewers a few times for the first time ever.

Fox Business decided one Saturday morning, with little promotion, to do a question-and-answer session about the market. Executives were stunned by the volume of phone calls and e-mails, said Kevin Magee, Fox executive vice president in charge of the network.

The popular business blog The Big Picture has seen its traffic double, and had a record-setting September.

“People make money on the way down, too,” said Mark Hoffman, CNBC president. “As we have seen, one person’s bad news in business is another person’s good news.”

CNBC’s screen of talking heads was the butt of a few jokes. The network’s “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer drew more serious attention about the impact of TV analysts on behavior when he appeared on NBC’s “Today” show Oct. 6 to urge people who might need money during the next five years to take it out of the stock market “right now.” His personality gave the remarks outsized attention at a time investors were jittery.

Fox Business went on the attack, running ads saying that it was part of a pattern of bad advice offered by Cramer. Hoffman said Cramer, who also advised investors who have no immediate need for the money to let it ride, was giving the same recommendation as most financial advisers.

Through two weeks, at least, Cramer’s advice was sound: The Dow Jones industrial average closed at 10,325 the business day before Cramer talked on “Today,” and was at 9,122 at noon Tuesday.

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