For a cable network that reportedly attracts a mere 6,300 daytime viewers, the six-month-old Fox Business Network sure gets a lot of media attention. The latest and most thoughtful scrutiny so far comes in the March-April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, which includes a well-argued critique whose headline pretty much says it all: "Happy All the Time." CJR's beef with Fox Business goes well beyond the usual complaints about the network's penchant for dumbing down financial news or its "pantheon of nubile babe reporters" or even its right-leaning political biases. CJR is more concerned with Fox Business Network's seemingly bottomless supply of good cheer at a time when its professed target audience -- Main Street, aka Middle America -- is worried sick about losing jobs, homes, even shirts.
"One of the weirdest things about Fox Business Network -- and potentially most alienating to an economically anxious middle-class audience -- is its relentless effort to squeeze upbeat news out of a terrible economy," CJR observes. Examples abound, from one guest countering a downer of a retail-sales report with the observation that, anecdotally, people are still "buying stuff," to another relating that some guy in real estate in Kansas City is "doing really well" to anchor Alexis Glick exhorting her guests to "Uplift me!" What's sorely missing from Fox Business, CJR says, "is, oddly, the actual perspective and experience of the average Joe, to whom extensive lip service is given on air."
The magazine concludes that to find its audience, Fox Business will have to leave "the party at Murdoch mansion" and report what's really going on in the U.S. economy as experienced by real people. And we wholeheartedly agree that such reporting would produce better television, not to mention journalism. But we wonder if it really would increase the network's audience, as CJR suggests. Do viewers want to watch people just like themselves losing their homes or getting crushed by healthcare bills? Or would that just send them straight to the escapist "reality" of money-worshiping shows like Real Housewives of New York City?
It's a question not just for Fox Business Network, but for much of retail business journalism, notably the personal finance media, as it faces the end of yet another boom: What to do when dealing with money -- investing it, spending it, even fantasizing about it -- is no longer fun for large swaths of people, who, as recently as a year ago, believed their homes had made them rich, sort of. These days, the mere act of opening a statement -- whether for a brokerage account, a high-yield savings account, or a mortgage -- can send folks reaching for the Pepcid. So tuning into Fox Business, or CNBC, or picking up titles like Money or Smart Money can be as appealing as a trip to the dentist. Ten investments to make now? No thanks, we'll take a root canal instead.
How will the personal finance pubs respond to the current economy, with its tangle of recondite difficulties? In its March issue, Money tries to confront the situation head-on with a "special report" on how to "recession-proof your life." It's all pretty run-of-the-mill, commonsense kind of stuff, from "stock up on emergency funds" to try to hold on to your job. Hey, good idea. But at least give Money points for realism, which also runs through the issue's main event: a baby boomer's "guide to financial freedom." Says Money, "Inevitably, the tailwinds that the economy has enjoyed for the past quarter-century will have to play themselves out, if only because the conditions that created them no longer exist."
Meanwhile, Smart Money takes a different tack in its March offering. Its cover story: What to do with a $100,000 windfall.
"It may be hard to remember in a time of shaky stock markets and subprime jitters, but it's still the age of affluence in America," the story chirps. More cheery news: "Almost one in 12 American families, or more than nine million households, reported having collected an inheritance of $100,000 or more in recent years," and it's only going to get better as the baby boomers age.
Yippee, that's swell. After all, there's no bear market in death. Somebody tell that to the eternally happy crew at Fox Business.