If the stock market goes down, blame Mars rocks

September 28, 1997|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight-Ridder News Service

PERHAPS YOU wonder how come we here in the news media always make such a big deal about the stock market. The answer is simple: We don't understand it. We have an old saying in journalism: "If you don't understand something, it must be important."

This is also why we media people get so excited about science. In our scientific educations, we got as far as the part in biology class where they gave us a razor and a dead frog, and told us to find the pancreas. Right then we started thinking two words, and those words were: "English major."

So we quit studying science, which is why we do not begin to understand -- to pick one of many examples -- how electricity works. We believe that electricity exists, because the electric company keeps sending us bills for it, but we cannot figure out how it travels inside wires. We have looked long and hard at wires (some of us have tried blowing into them) and we cannot begin to figure out how the electrons, or amperes, or whatever, manage to squeeze through there into the TV set, or how, once inside, they manage to form themselves into complex, discernible images such as the Pillsbury Doughboy.

We in the media write our stories on computers, but because computers contain both electricity and modems, we have no idea how they work. If you observe us professional journalists covering a news event, you'll see that we divide our time as follows:

* 1 percent: Getting information.

* 6 percent: Writing stories.

* 93 percent: Trying to get the computer to send the story back to the newspaper by pressing keys pretty much at random with growing panic until we have sent our stories to some destination -- possibly the Kremlin; possibly the radio room of the Titanic -- but not to our newspapers. Then we call our newspapers and beg for help from the Computer People, who are technically competent people, the kind of people who always found the frog pancreas; they understand modems, and whatever they tell us to do to our computers, including wave a magic bone over the keyboard, we do it.

We in the media are especially impressed with space. We cannot comprehend how anybody could get a rocket to land on another planet; many of us cannot consistently parallel park. This is why we got so excited about the recent Pathfinder mission, which day after day resulted in excited front-page headlines like:

ROCK FOUND ON MARS!

And:

ANOTHER ROCK FOUND ON MARS!

And:

MARS APPARENTLY COVERED WITH ROCKS!

We in the media believe that the Mars rocks are important because scientists tell us so. We will cheerfully print, without question, pretty much anything that scientists tell us about space ("STANFORD -- Scientists here announced today that, using a powerful new type of telescope that uses amperes connected to a modem, they have located six previously unknown galaxies shaped like all the major characters on 'Gilligan's Island' except Ginger").

My point is that this same principle applies to media coverage of the stock market. We in the media, as a rule, are not good with financial matters. Some veteran journalists have not yet turned in their expense accounts for the Civil War. So as a group, we don't really have a solid handle on (1) What the stock market is; (2) Why it goes up and down; (3) Which is good, "Bull" or "Bear"; (4) Whether "points" means the same thing as dollars, and if so, why don't they just call them dollars; (5) Who Alan Greenspan is; and (6) Whether he is the same as Dow Jones.

Because we don't understand these things, we have naturally concluded that the stock market is extremely important, and whenever it does anything, we write front-page stories filled with quotes from financial experts. But I suspect that these experts sometimes like to yank the media's chain. Consider the following quotation, which actually appeared in a Washington Post story back in August explaining why the stock market went down:

" 'For Coke, an icon of the market, to show feet of clay is upsetting,' said Barton Biggs, global equity strategist at Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Co."

I have read this sentence at least 35 times, and every time I have more questions, including:

* What kind of job is "global equity strategist"?

* What kind of name is "Barton Biggs"?

* Since when does Coke have feet?

These are just some of the issues that lead me to believe that if we were to call "Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Co.," we would find ourselves talking to the very same scientists who are always discovering new galaxies and showing us pictures of Mars rocks. That's right: I think that science and the stock market could be part of some giant hoax, and I intend to transmit this information to the newspaper, just as soon as I can locate the magic bone.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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