Media Beat: BAD NEWS BEARS CHANGE TONE OF MEDIA SCRIPT
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- When the Ameritrade company launched a $200 millionmarke= ting drive to explain the joys of online trading in autumn 1999, abarrage o= f TV commercials invited viewers to join in the fun. The news wasbullish, a= nd the firm's motto -- "Believe in yourself" -- provided anupbeat message. = Tech stocks led advances in self-affirmation.
A senior vice president at Ameritrade proclaimed that onlineinvest= ing "empowers individuals to take control of their financial lives." Within= several months, the Nasdaq composite index nearly doubled. Whenspring 2000= began, plenty of satisfied new customers were glad to beplaying the click-= and-invest game.
Now, four seasons later, the Nasdaq is less than half of where itwa= s. Losses have been particularly devastating for many of the investorswho'd= found the get-with-it advertisements and other media hype tooirresistible = to resist a year ago.
These days, the online trading commercials are on television withle= ss frequency and less exuberance. They seem to be more targeted atlong-term= professional investors. Meanwhile, journalists speak ruefully,sometimes in= morose tones, about the digital gold that has turned tosilicon ashes in th= e mouths of America's stock-buying public.
Sure, "caveat emptor" and all that. Everyone should have known ther= isks. The same can be said for millions of consumers who have let smileycig= arette advertisements coax them into smoking. But if the online tradingads = carried any warning labels at all, they were in very small print.
On a daily basis, CNN's "Moneyline" and many other national TVprogr= ams stoked the buying frenzy. It was all quite lucrative -- bringingin reco= rd levels of commissions for brokerage houses and high ratings formarket-fi= xated network shows. Only spoilsports warned that disasterloomed, and they = didn't get nearly as much air time as the boosters.
Today, news reports tell about formerly soaring dot-com executivesw= ho have seen their multimillions (or billions) turn into Nasdaq rubble. Eve= n in burned-out condition, the stars of cyberspace get plenty of mediaatten= tion. Less common are the stories that focus on rank-and-fileinvestors who = lost most of their life's savings.
We still aren't getting much coverage of some grim details. Forinst= ance: How were so many people drawn in by the warm-and-cuddly imagesof inve= stment-by-mouse as a means to financial security and personalglory? What wa= s it about the prevailing media environment that persuadedmillions of Ameri= cans to put money they couldn't afford to lose intohigh-tech stocks that we= re incapable of sustaining vastly inflated shareprices?
Eighteen months ago, Ameritrade was boasting in a news releasethat = its huge ad blitz would go after every sector of society: "Thecampaign's ta= rget audience is more psychographic than demographic, cuttingacross all age= s, races, professions and income levels."
All "income levels" included people with close to zero disposablein= come. The online brokerage firms proved adept at separating a lot ofthose i= ndividuals from their money.
Whatever their economic class, many in the cross hairs stood toforf= eit more than dollars. To the extent that they bought into ad pitchesand br= oader media mania for online trading, people were also vulnerable tobait-an= d-switch tactics that manipulated insecurities in the realm ofself-esteem. = With stocks climbing, a slogan like "Believe in yourself" wasapt to seem li= ke a welcome boost, a pat on the back. But when self-regardis pegged to sto= ck prices, what happens when the market tanks?
Embedded in the osten= sible affirmation was a much less humanisticmessage: Believe in wealth. And= no matter where the market is headed,that's a message that ends up doing e= normous damage -- inflicted with thehelp of ongoing media themes -- portray= ing a person's capital buildup as akey indicator of worth as a human being.
Let's face it: From splashy magazine features to commercials andent= ertainment shows on television to laudatory news profiles ofventure-capital= ist billionaires, mass media outlets are frequently toutingthe accumulation= of financial assets as the pinnacle of achievement.
Viewed from ano= ther planet, the basic character of these dominantmedia values would be cle= ar. But we're accustomed to this constantpropaganda. We're encouraged to th= ink it's normal. And the costs -- forindividuals and for our society -- go = well beyond any losses in the stockmarket.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "TheHabits = of Highly Deceptive Media."