Thursday, May 26, 2011

Re Mark Haines, RIP

I wasn't going to write a post about the recent death of Mark Haines, CNBC anchor. But the network's relentless self-promotion, with large doses of hype, lies and selective memory tossed in for good measure, have become so stomach-turning that they have driven me to it.

There are really two topics in this post. The first is Haines himself.

Like many other viewers, I found Mark Haines to be, to use the already-overused terms, gruff, likable, direct, contentious, and objective. There were times when I'd had enough and muted the program, but, for the most part, I found him to be refreshingly honest and candid, unlike most of his colleagues.

Even Tom Keene, on Bloomberg, gave an eloquent eulogy to Haines yesterday as the signoff of his noontime hour program. From all the personal anecdotes from the many reporters and pundits who knew him, Haines appears to have been a genuinely kind, interesting, good person.

I found, just randomly Googling Haines this morning, this webpage which included these passages,

"Haines was known for his sharp tongue and contentious tone. “He was the first business journalist ever to ask a C.E.O. a hard question,” CNBC host Jim Cramer told The New York Times in an e-mail statement.

Haines, however, told The Chicago Tribune in 1998 that his style made for good television. “If we don’t get people who watch, we’re out of business…At the same time, you have to have a core of people who understand business,” he said."

Leave it to blowhard Cramer to engage in hyperbole. Was Haines truly "the first business journalist to ever ask a CEO a hard question?" Probably not. But this morning's Wall Street Journal obit noted his relentless dogging of former Kodak CEO George Fisher for lying to Haines in an interview. According to the Journal piece, Fisher misled Haines regarding a rumored imminent price cut, so when the action occurred a few days later, Haines began replaying Fisher's on air lie frequently. In that regard, he was unique.

However, to me, the second passage reveals Haines' true sensibility. He was in the business of working to "get people to watch." Because his job was to sell those eyeballs to advertisers.

Haines could be irascible, but, on balance, he was largely objectively sceptical and truth-seeking. Whereas other anchors would tiptoe around an obvious falsehood- Becky Quick and Carlos Whathisname continue to be timid even today- Haines was not.

That said, the other topic of this post is CNBC's shameless use of Haines' death to promote phenomena that either never were, or never should have occurred. That was the stomach-turning part of the past day-plus' CNBC coverage of his passing.

I'm speaking of this morning's continued use of Haines' memory for CNBC's anchors and reporters to flog its own image as ground-breaking, crucially important to financial markets, and the very beacon of all that is right, just and true in financial news coverage.

To hear, for example, from Maria Bartiromo this morning, that her reporting from the floor of the NYSE was somehow instrumental in capitalism's growth and importance. Sundry pundits and CNBC persona solemnly note how Haines & Co. provided "the viewers" with such valuable insights and calls, the better to assist them in leveling the playing field with Wall Streeters.

Don't believe a word of it.

Haines understood that his job wasn't to help viewers invest, but to sell advertising through watchable, entertaining business and finance coverage on cable television.

Perhaps that is why several of Haines' colleagues noted that he got his game on for the camera but, before and after, dressed down and essentially moved on to other, more personally-fulfilling topics, such as, we were told, the Mets, gardening and tomatoes. Apparently, Haines' viewed his on-air time as, well, theater, not his real life.

Bartiromo, as expected, used Haines' death to bolster her own ego and self-image this morning. Sanctimonious to a fault, she centered her comments on her own early career, invoking time after time how she did it all for "the viewers" as investors. Never mind that the NYSE floor was never where most of the buy and sell orders originated. Or that the very emptiness of the trading floor is a testament to how inefficient and rife with front-running the old specialist-dominated NYSE was. That's why it's in the process of selling itself to Deutsch Borse.

Bartiromo is the most assertive of a history that never was, perhaps because, in that false past, her role as "the first woman to report from the floor of the NYSE" has some meaning or value.

As if.

How is it that all these colleagues of the late, appropriately honored Haines, celebrate his dogged, candid pursuit of the truth from his interviewees with hardball questions and tactics, yet almost none of them do the same?

How is it that Bartiromo tears up when remembering Haines' style, only to have become her network's biggest embarrassment as an interviewer, lobbing softball after softball at her guests, often revealing her own ignorance by her misunderstanding their responses? How does a network that supported Haines' brand of tenacious truth-finding tolerate Bartiromo's and so many other reporters' and anchors' ineptnesses and lack of courage with their guests?

How can a network which celebrates Vanguard group founder John Bogle, of buy-and-hold index fame, at the same time regale viewers with tales of how CNBC has done so much for the individual investor who trades individual equities?

Perhaps the best way in which CNBC could honor Haines would be to finally clean house of its mealy-mouthed, poorly-informed and inadequate reporters and anchors. That would be a lasting testament to the man's memory. Not just using his voice over to announce the beginning of the 9am CNBC program.

I didn't watch Haines for 22 straight years, so I can't say I know Haines' exact views on retail investor trading. But I would guess, from the 15 years or so during which I did watch SquawkBox with varying degress of frequency, that Haines was rather sanguine about the fact that there's never been a level playing field between the retail investor and the financial communities' investment, trading and institutional investment houses. And there's never going to be one.

That retail investors were foolish to believe watching a network like CNBC would magically mint them profits by trading equities and other instruments at retail brokerage fees.

It's a shame that CNBC is using Haines' death to glorify itself and push the falsehood that watching its programs is good for retail investors.

The entire raison d'etre of the CNBC network is to sell gullible retail viewership to advertisers. That's it. End of story.

Here's something to consider. Haines was at CNBC and/or its predecessors since 1989. That's 22 years. In all that time, have you ever seen a CNBC study which took a randomly-selected group of its viewers with a certain minimum investment amount and tracked their total returns over the time they regularly watched CNBC, versus a control group of similar investors who did not watch CNBC?

No, you haven't. Neither have I. Because the results wouldn't be pretty.

I'd love to hear Mark Haines' thoughts on that topic.

That said, I sincerely do hope Mark Haines rests in peace, and I empathize with the family members whom he has left behind.

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