Has CNBC adopted strategy
of engaging critical blogs?

          Posted: Monday, July 27, 2009
          ©2009 CNBCfix

In the last month, at least five CNBC stars have publicly acknowledged critical Web sites that are not regarded as mainstream media.

The gut feeling here is that it's a coincidence. But we're going to offer two possible other reasons: 1) it's a concerted effort by CNBC, which has a new news boss, Jeremy Pink, to create buzz, or 2) perhaps it's a realization that engagement affects criticism, in positive ways.

Dennis Kneale started this on June 30, specifically naming four Web sites he labeled as "cowardly" and "digital dickweeds." (Partial transcripts at the bottom of this article.) He has continued this theme in the weeks since, adding more widely followed sites such as Gawker and Huffington Post. Then Charles Gasparino singled out a writer at the Zero Hedge Web site as "moronic" and an "idiot;" his colleague Michelle Caruso-Cabrera declared the term "moronic bloggers" as "redundant."

The strangest affirmation though came from Melissa Francis, albeit not on-air that we know of, when she twittered about a bra-size poll at a site called CNBCsucks (she did not mention the site's name, but provided a link) and called its conclusions "terrifyingly accurate." (We learned of this from a post by Bess Levin at DealBreaker.) Last, we noticed Allen Wastler, the editor of CNBC.com who appears to be a low-key sort, offering a tip of the cap to none other than Zero Hedge for a spoof of a CNBC.com page.

One wouldn't expect CNBC to publicly declare, "Yes, this is a new strategy of ours, to get people buzzing about us in the blogosphere," perhaps as the Rick Santelli and Cramer-Stewart buzz fades. But after extensive review of the tapes, plus a brief look at some of the sites named, two observations seem valid:

1. The conclusions by Gasparino and Kneale on anonymity are thought-provoking, but at the same time seem one-sided when nuance on this subject is necessary. Anonymity is a concept regularly valued by news organizations everywhere, including CNBC, when someone has an important bit of information to share about, say, a Wall Street bank, or a dubious government operation like Watergate, etc. Many newspapers for decades have published anonymous rant features on op-ed pages where people call in and complain about the mayor, etc. On another level, there is Wikipedia, which might be controversial to some but is regarded as a very valuable resource by others (we heard Bob Pisani recently read Rebecca Jarvis' Wikipedia-page highlights on the air, to smiles). Gasparino at one point said "there should be some disclosures here" — most would agree with that ... if there was any kind of reliable standard. Newspapers, for example, write about religion, and we don't see taglines at the end saying "This writer was born (insert faith here) and is/is not a practicing person of this religion." And what about the dozens of people on CNBC daily making stock picks. The disclosure descriptions are in different formats for different programs, but never do we see an individual's complete portfolio or size of recent positions.

2. Gasparino, in this site's opinion, is not someone who in general should be getting a bad "rap" in the blogosphere. If anything, we have every reason to think Gasparino is one of the blogosphere's rare friends in the national media. (We don't know him, have never met him.) He writes for a Web site, the Daily Beast, aside from his other reporting. He responds to inquiries; as he said in one segment (below), if you've got a gripe or a suspicion, call him. As far as public figures go, and he is one, he is remarkably open and honest about his background, opinions, etc. And he even mentions blogs favorably on-air, including one reference to a DealBreaker writer in recent commentary, and does not seem to object to those who are trying to do something right.

We found it interesting that Gasparino and Kneale both named one particular Web site, called Zero Hedge, and that Wastler also acknowledged this site.

We asked the Zero Hedge writer known as Tyler Durden (yes, that's the name of the "Fight Club" character) why Gasparino and Kneale would single out his site. "I wish I knew," he said, but offered this: "I assume because as the Charles Schumer disclosure on Friday indicated, Zero Hedge has a policy impact with its disclosures and actual reporting."

Gasparino on July 22 (transcript below), referring to Durden, said "this idiot ... keeps writing that I'm now on the paycheck" of Goldman Sachs.

We asked Durden if that was true. He told this site, "I don't recall saying he was on GS' paycheck anywhere." Durden referred us to a series of recent posts he made about Gasparino. His commentary in places is highly critical of Gasparino and does suggest Gasparino gave GS a free pass in terms of tenacity in exchange for scoop material, although we did not see a specific reference to "paycheck." We have put in a query to Gasparino.

Kneale has explicitly condemned reader comments posted on blogs. This is an extremely strong point; we agree. The only problem is that Kneale did not mention how this practice is not only enabled, but encouraged, by the media he respects, and the media we respect and desperately want to see survive, all the way up to the New York Times. A big reason this option exists is because it keeps people on the site for longer periods of time, a selling point with advertisers. And it also helps newspapers, regularly striving to get different people to write them letters to the editor for example, attract a more "interactive" readership.

Those are fine goals, but the reality is that reader comment fields tend to be hijacked — in our limited observances of various sites — by a select few individuals who post multiple times, often patently obvious inaccuracies, racial or other slurs; seemingly lawsuits waiting to happen. We all know the alleged monitoring of this material is very lax. And then maybe our biggest beef: these comments get picked up by search engines as being part of the article and thus heavily distort the article's true contents in Google or other searches. Here, we won't do it.

Either these reader comments should be considered the product of the site, in which case Kneale should condemn daily newspapers as well for allowing it, or they should be considered separate and not justifiable grounds for attacking the Web sites on which they appear.

In terms of television — and reviews are the ultimate goal here — where does all of this rank? Pretty good. The best moment, by far — a rare laugh-out-loud moment on a cable news channel — comes from this segment by Kneale on July 14 ending with the slogan "Up yours." Whoever came up with this, Kneale or one of his producers, hit the jackpot. We've rewatched it numerous times just for kicks. The way Kneale fades away into darkness, with Flight of the Conchords playing, something about it is fall-out-of-the-chair hilarious.

We think, in the limited time we've spent looking up some of the blogs mentioned by Kneale, that the bloggers have a point about a few certain end-arounds he might've called. What began as something that came across as real outrage now looks more like maybe 10% real outrage or so and 90% effective showmanship. We are suspicious that even this site got an inquiry from Kneale's team before this all started, someone clicking here for keywords like "Dennis Kneale insufferable" or something like that. Sounded strange then. Maybe they noticed that while we've taken a dig or two, we also in June actually said something very nice about the way he handled a situation with another CNBC personality.

But overall we'll hand it to Kneale — he saw a good story, he did offer these sites national TV exposure and they declined (and we don't know why, but apparently they did); it is true he is called names on at least some of these sites, he gave them a chance to defend it, they declined, and there is something compelling about what he put on the air. Whether an unsparing optimist can sustain long-term programming, we're skeptical. But if CNBC brass thought Kneale had a low ceiling as a host (which was kind of this site's view before this started), they are probably rethinking that now.

Also making for good television were Gasparino's two commentaries July 22 and 23. The first was spontaneous, and to his credit he did identify his specific target so viewers could look it up for themselves. The second was more relaxed and watchable for a (very) long series of thought-provoking comments on blogging and anonymity, again not all of which were negative.

We note that while Wastler showed a fine sense of humor in recognizing one of these sites, and bolding its name, he did not actually offer a link to it in his post.

The disappointment was in the commentary in the Gasparino segments by Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who had nothing of substance to say on these matters, nothing funny, nothing witty, just a tired disdain for the world of "moronic bloggers," that "redundant" term, except she is lumping in everyone from Mike Huckman to Doug Kass with that labeling. Caruso-Cabrera is very articulate, very good on television, very gorgeous, one reason many people watch CNBC. These were not a couple of her better moments.

Putting together this post, we looked at various sites mentioned by Kneale and Gasparino. One thing we noticed, in terms of pure blogging, a lot of these guys (and women?) really are pretty good. We don't endorse any of the content; we don't know enough about it. We didn't have time (what Web site operator does?) to look up mission statements or determine motivation or, as Gasparino put it, "axes to grind." A lot of these people are hugely productive, certainly technically savvy (just about anyone running a blog is; this one you'll note is Stone Age-level programming), witty, and can write a little bit. We particularly like the name Zero Hedge, which we'd never heard of until Kneale mentioned it; good call, it seems a fitting name for a financial-type of Web site (again, we know virtually nothing about the content or the mission statement and don't have an opinion on that, speaking only of the name here). It seems like some of these bloggers could really hit the big time if they were focused on doing so; maybe they are in some way. CNBC's Steve Liesman grumbled (see below) on-air that "they're bloggers, not reporters," and this is true, something amateur writers probably don't appreciate enough, that expressing opinions is one thing; actual reporting and fact-checking to generally accepted standards can be very difficult and time-consuming.

No doubt much of the criticism Kneale mentions or that CNBC absorbs in general stems from any setbacks in the economy and stock market. When things were great in the '90s, CNBC was exciting and Alan Greenspan was golden; then Enron and tech froth collapsed, and analysts and CNBC "cheerleaders" were suddenly "controversial," and didn't figure out or report the problems fast enough, etc., a point we've returned to in the last 10 months or so.

We suggested at the top of this article that identifying blogs might actually be a CNBC strategy. We've noticed some of the sites mentioned by Kneale say he is trying to milk their readership for ratings. But another thought comes to mind. That is, the concept of how we review people once they have made contact with us.

Clearly there is a difference in how we report when we think the subject is oblivious to us or ignoring us vs. when we know the subject is not ignoring us. Critical op-ed writers granted a weekly audience with President Obama might still write critically, but inevitably, it's a different tone, something that's somehow more ... all-encompassing, or something like that.

One example we found involves a nationally known sportswriter, known for unusually negative opinions, who was widely regarded as shunning contact with the people he wrote about. This is what one writer said about it: "Sportswriters have complained to me ... that (said writer) takes shots but doesn't show up in clubhouses."

The obvious question then is, which criticism is most real: the completely unbridled, I'll-never-speak-to-this-person-ever-and-just-let-it-all-hang-out-to-the-benefit-of-everyone-else-who-doesn't-know-this-person-either ... or the measured responses of one distinctly aware he is writing about a real person and knows the effect his writing has on this person?

We can't answer that.

Anyone reading this might easily wonder if this is a site with one of those "huge axes to grind." Absolutely not. The mission statement here: dedicated to journalism, dedicated to writing reviews, dedicated to watching CNBC ... because we like it. It's not perfect, but we like it. We began to realize early this year how unfortunate this site's name is, because we received inquiries suggesting we've been lumped in with a number of critics, irritated by Jim Cramer or Rick Santelli or someone else, who seek to somehow "fix" CNBC. Rather, we're for people who want their CNBC "fix" every day and are interested in objective, everyman reviews of what happens on-air (and sometimes off), positive and negative, dedicated to the highest standards of journalism established for decades by daily print media and news magazines. It seemed a neat, clever, short and easily typable URL name at the time that might've quickly backfired. Too late to change; that's the way it goes. We probably bought at the peak of the housing market too.

We agree with Gasparino, financial disclosures are indeed important. This writer notes stock positions for example when discussing "Fast Money." We've forgotten once or twice, but this site is low-traffic enough (so far) it can't possibly influence stock prices, so we're confident the SEC isn't going to gripe, particularly when we also find mistakes and/or discrepancies between the "Fast Money" show and the online recap.

Reporting on subjects such as what Kneale and Gasparino have delivered is a blast. This site has not nearly the traffic level of others mentioned by Kneale. But some people read it. We do think we're ahead of the pack in reviewing CNBC programs, specifically "Fast Money" and popular documentaries such as Trish Regan's "Marijuana Inc.," Erin Burnett's "Dollars & Danger" report on Africa, and David Faber's "House of Cards." We gave Faber's accompanying book a more thorough review than anything else we saw on the Web. We also credit the producers and all of those off-air technicians whose names barely show up in the scroll at the ends of the programs. We think the effort spent on these reviews is worth it for the viewers and the shows' producers. Is the traditional media (which we love, by the way, and absolutely must find a way to survive), with their column logos and disclosures, doing this kind of work? Not that we've noticed.

We're not only about CNBC television. We've pointed out why the NFL Draft doesn't serve anyone and actually hurts the players, league and fans. We've explained why baseball needs to remove its existing paper distinction of two leagues and realign divisions geographically, so that the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox et al. are in the same division, the Cubs-Sox and Astros-Rangers in same division, etc.

Finally, we note that Gasparino last week complained, "a lot of these people just say stuff, and they never call you." Here's an example of the difficulty facing a lowly Web site that does real reporting as best it can.

We became aware that a certain word still makes regular appearances in national media, by the most trusted media organizations, and uttered by celebrities and power brokers even.

We found it alarming that this term still has widespread use and figured others might feel the same way. We put together a list that was shockingly easy to assemble, with minimal comment. After all, this is the work of the writers, it pretty much speaks for itself, everyone else can judge. As it says in our post, we have no wish to demonize anyone and only wish to point out that a troubling term has more traction than maybe people think, and people might not realize it has a distinct negative connotation.

We concentrated on the writers, not the celebrities, because anyone can make a comment they might regret; the writers are in the business of informing the public and opting to use this terminology to do so.

Then, we took up the very tedious task of contacting many of the media organizations listed to ask them to clarify their own definition of this word, to see if we somehow had it wrong, or if there is an explanation.

Many of these organizations even have a "public editor" who handles these kinds of inquiries.

One writer mentioned on our list responded. Beyond that, we got an automated reply from a public editor's inbox saying our mail would be reviewed. We never heard any more. Another organization responded more than a week later, saying thanks for your mail, we're considering it for a letter to the editor, and that was the last we heard of that.

All this site did was ask these organizations a simple, courteous question about material they printed/posted/published for public consumption. Like many people Dennis Kneale says he contacted, they couldn't be bothered to defend their work to us.

So what should we tell them: Up yours?

(Partial transcripts and full transcripts of Dennis Kneale-Charles Gasparino commentary. Note: As is policy on this site, with TV transcripts we generally include everything we hear for the sake of completeness, the "um," "uh," etc. It is debatable as to how much of this should be massaged; some news organizations will change "gonna" to "going to," we generally don't. Charles Gasparino in one transcript regularly says "you know," we include it for completeness, not to zing anyone. And we had to look up "lingua franca."):

Dennis Kneale, June 30
Dennis Kneale: "Now, I had predicted on Friday night that some cynical, mean-spirited bloggers would trash me for this end-of-recession proclamation. They haven't let me down. Their invective is lighting the anonymous, dark and cowardly corners of the blogosphere, blogs including Zero Hedge, DealBreaker.com, Marketmindz, zzz, with a z, and more have jeered at my optimism, they say I'm irritating and unwatchable, though they post a video of me anyway, and they call me Beaker..."

DK: "Another comment asked, 'Was that a "Saturday Night Live" skit?' That was no comedy sketch, that was hope, and fortitude, you digital dickweed, and I say dickweed because apparently it is indeed a plant, akin to pond scum, and name-calling appears to be the lingua franca of the blogosphere."

DK: "I've always liked a good argument ... so we contacted seven different bloggers ... one guy, with Zero Hedge, agreed to come on, but wanted to remain anonymous. We said OK. Then, he bails, claiming he's had a brutal day. Apparently he's too tired to talk on the phone. Poor baby. And the others said no, or they didn't get back to us at all. One did agree to come on..."

"Mike," of AnnuityIQ: "I really appreciate that uh, you would, extend this offer ... (Regarding anonymity), it's just a blogging custom. And bloggers know that as you establish relationships online, that often the real identities will be exchanged."

Dennis Kneale, July 1
DK: "You know when I criticized their mean-spirited negativity and bashed them for hiding behind the cowardly cloak of anonymity and I called them dickweeds, a form of pond scum. Well, they have howled with outrage across the blogosphere, blog sites like DealBreaker, Gawker, HuffingtonPost, The Business Insider, Zero Hedge, AnnuityIQ and more have incited an online mob to rush to their defense..."

DK: "Some made veiled death threats..."

DK: "Way too many homo-erotic and anti-gay comments..."

DK: "Blogosphere ... it is the bitterest realm on Earth."

Dennis Kneale and Karl Denninger, July 9
DK: "Karl, you write under your own real name, apparently. A lot of your brethren out there stay anonymous and they say a lot less intelligent stuff. Why?"

Karl Denninger: "Well, I think a lot of people believe that somehow they have to keep their, their, anonymity in order to stay somehow under the radar. I don't understand it, it doesn't make any sense. If you're going to spout off, and put your opinion out there on the air, I think you should use your name, and I think you should be proud of what you have to say. Otherwise, don't say it in the first place."

DK: "Does it allow them to be meaner?"

DK: "... Thank you for not calling me an idiot in person."

Dennis Kneale, July 10
DK: "I tried to reach out to the bitterest realm on Earth last night, the blogosphere. And all I got was a new load of vitriol and grief ... there's this one here (reader comment): "The bottom will come when Kneale, Gasparino, Cramer and Company are dragged out of the CNBC studios ... shame on all of you guys."

Dennis Kneale, July 13
DK ("addressing the 'Woodshedder' "): "Got another bitter blogger bashing me and my penchant for selling the hope. This guy calls himself the Woodshedder, and he wages an online attack at 11 o'clock on Friday night after I took on another blogger on IBankCoin.com. ... The Wood man says I have no interest in discussing such themes and details, as he writes, 'This is all a game. Anyone who thinks Kneale truly wants a well-reasoned, insightful conversation about anything is the true idiot.' Now, that's just not true."

Dennis Kneale, July 14
DK (playing Flight of the Conchords): "Why should I care that some frig-tard nobody says bile things about me in a post only other cretins will read?"

DK: "I offer this olive branch to all those hopeless bloggers out there ... Up yours."

Charles Gasparino, July 22:
Charles Gasparino: "Every time I say something nice about Goldman Sachs, even moderately nice, after beating them up 90% of the time, I get these moronic bloggers writing about me, that, it's like, I'm getting a call from Lloyd Blankfein, especially one moron at something called Zero Intelligence or Zero Hedge, I can't remember which one it is, but this idiot, keeps writing that I'm now on the paycheck and all I'm doing is this: Listen, I will beat up on Goldman Sachs all the time, but I have to give their side of the story, and that's what, that's what I did a couple days ago."

Michelle Caruso-Cabrera: "All right, and moronic bloggers, that's redundant, Charlie."

CG: "Here's to you, Mr. Zero Intelligence."

MCC: "Moronic bloggers is redundant, come on."

CG: "That's right. Tyler Durden. That's probably not even his name."

MCC: "Probably not. (Both laugh.) And he's probably not as handsome as you, either. ... Oh "Fight Club" character, that's what it is, so it's definitely a pseudonym, pen name ... like Mark Twain."

Charles Gasparino and Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, July 23
MCC: "All right, Charlie Gasparino and I caused an online storm yesterday when we stated what some of us think is the obvious, and those moronic bloggers have come out swinging. (Gasparino laughs.) Charlie, are we inflating these guys and girls beyond their relevance by even mentioning them?"

CG: "It's kind of like child abuse, though, isn't it, on our part (laughs)..."

MCC: "How?"

CG: "Because they are, they are, like, uh, not, listen, I don't, I think we are inflating them a little bit, in terms of their importance, that's why I mean it's like child abuse, beating up on the semi-defenseless. But here's the thing, what's, what I find interesting about this, um, you know people get a lot of their information off the Web, and you know, here are a group of people constantly opining, you know. Take us out of it, but here are a group of people constantly opining, with aliases. Um, uh, there was one blogger that attacked me for making fun of the one guy's name that, you know, that's an alias, saying well you know, uh, George Elliot was an alias for a woman too, but, you know, that, the point is that, you know, they're opining, and, and, critiquing, and, and, ex-, and, explaining things in a semi-factual way or allegedly factual way, with aliases, and I think, you know, we are doing a service by pointing out, that these are people with huge axes to grind. I mean, listen, I, you know, these guys all invest. You don't know who they are. They're out there saying all sorts of stuff, much of it is b.s., I mean, the stuff they, some of these guys said about me, uh without putting their name to it, has been outrageous; you know some of them have me, uh, you know, causing the Internet bubble, others-oth-others have me, you know, destroying Bear Stearns, so I think you know in the context of what they are, which, they're, they're, you know, they're semi-important, they're out there, people get a lot of their information from the Internet. Uh, it's just a word to the wise to investors. Listen, I'm a free market advocate, they can say whatever they want, you know, it doesn't bother me, it's actually fun making fun of 'em, but the reality is, that, uh, we, there should be some disclosures here, and uh, you know, if if if the men were really men, they should put their name to it, which they're not, or the women really. Listen: and there's a difference between these guys and say, responsible bloggers. Um, I think Doug Kass blogs very responsibly, his name is on it. Bess Levin, I, you know I love her, she's crazy, she, she says all sorts of stuff about me, I think she's brilliant, her name is on it, uh, and she calls you up for comment, John Carney, the Clusterstock, people..."

MCC: "Yeah, they're good, they're good..."

CG: "... Excellent. And I will say this, you know, there are, it, you know, that is the problem, that a lot of these people just say stuff, and they never call you, and they repeat, and they give, they give credence to lies. I'm getting a rap here, um..."

Steve Liesman: "That's why they call 'em bloggers and not reporters, Charlie."

CG: "Yeah but you know, Steve, that's a good point, and here's what's interesting about that, is that it's, there's a confluence here, which is a scary thing. And that's why I think..."

MCC: "OK, they're rollin' the music Charlie, you know what that means..."

CG: "... Put your, put your ... guys, if you are real men, put your name to it."

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