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My Humble, Unregulated Profession

Angie Herbers (our keynote presenter at this year’s Insider’s Forum conference) recently told me in passing, during a longer conversation, that she thinks that journalism in America has become dysfunctional or broken.  As a journalist, I had to process that a bit.

The interesting thing about the journalism ‘profession’ (it’s really more of an avocation) is that we aren’t bound by any formal ethical rules or guidelines.  No SEC examiners ever come into my office to check my books and records, go over my reports or see if I’m treating my audience fairly.  I’ve never had a journalist mentor, so, like most people who do what I do, I was forced to figure out on my own what it is that I do and how it should be done.

It wasn’t hard.  The goal, as I interpreted it, was to learn as much as I could about a subject, listening to as many people close to the action as possible, and then provide people who didn’t have that time to listen and learn a clear summary assessment of what’s going on, hopefully in the form of an interesting story.  Early in my career, this was an enormous challenge, because I would be assigned articles on topics I knew nothing about beforehand.  Acquiring the knowledge required to write responsibly sometimes took a month or more.  No publication was ever willing to pay for a month of my time, so I had to supplement my income with advertising writing, and even after a month (or two, or in a few cases longer), I felt dissatisfied that I had really learned enough to provide a knowledgeable report.

At first, my goal was to be perfectly objective.  But I quickly learned that there are no perfectly objective individuals or perspectives on this (or probably any other) planet; we all have our biases and preferences.  My overriding bias today is that I am a fan of the financial planning profession in its purest, best form, and want to promote the work that advisors are doing on behalf of their clients.  I have biases against self-serving advice, advisors whose judgment is swayed by commission revenue and organizations (think: wirehouses) that are motivated almost purely by self-interest in their policies and customer interactions.

Overall, when it comes to bias, I prefer right over wrong, truth over falsehood, love over hatred, and I try to understand the sometimes-nuanced differences among them in the world around me.  There are a lot of writers who seem to bend over backwards to give equal weight to both sides of an issue.  I once wrote a column where an angel and demon were offering their (very different) positions on the fiduciary standard, which was an exaggerated way to suggest that there were times when it’s okay to take sides in my reporting.

  Of course, I have other biases.  I tend to take the side of the small or weak over the strong if I see the weak being bullied or otherwise mistreated.  I feel an instinctive need to correct the arrogance I see in service providers and experienced advisors.  I no longer sit for interviews with most writers in the consumer press, because I think those publications are hopelessly conflicted and captured by their advertisers.  (Besides; they ask really dumb questions.)

I believe in capitalism and democracy, but I also believe they need to be governed by rules that ensure a fair playing field for everybody.  (And I believe that the pendulum has swung far from that at the moment.  It will swing back and forth many times, as it has throughout our history.)  I cannot make myself take crypto seriously as an investment category.  

And I also (you can say this is a paradox) believe that I should protect my readers from my own opinions, to try my best to let the information, data and observations speak for themselves.  This, to me, is not objectivity.  It is humility, something I don’t see much of in my line of work these days.

My advertising work, which I gave up when I was in my late 20s, opened my eyes to how many messages we receive each day that are slyly misleading or designed to bypass our cognitive minds altogether and leave a positive impression or call to action.  I was pretty good at this, until one day a colleague read a really good advertisement I had written and commented: ‘Bob, you sly dog.’

I didn’t want to be a sly dog.

The closest thing to advertising, in my journalistic experience, is the public relations teams at large organizations.  I would call and ask for a comment, and the comment would inevitably be along the lines of: ‘No, everything is fine and dandy and all of our customers are blissfully happy, and any problems anybody reports are completely bogus.’  I would love to live in the sunny world of public relations professionals, where the glass is always half-full and never half-empty, and the world is always full of joy and sunshine.  No group of people have made my job harder than PR folks, and the worst of it is that they are paid to lie to you, and they know it and do it anyway.  Catch them in a lie and all you get is a shrug.  That’s their job after all.

Smaller firms and individuals don’t have the resources to hire teams of PR professionals to fill the world with their sides of the story, and so this introduces a certain bias in the public discourse, a wind at the backs of the bigger firms, which I believe real journalists need to deliberately confront and sometimes counter.  Ideally, that wind should be neutral.

Did I just write ‘real’ journalists?  I think Angie is completely right and wrong at the same time.  What I’ve articulated here are the general criteria for ‘real’ journalists, which I separate from entertainers and shills.  Shills?  Many writers claim to be objective, but if you look closely, you see that they make their living by embracing self-serving conflicts and income, pandering to certain audiences for clicks or attention.  They pretend to be journalists in order to gain credibility with their readers.  

They are, in my view, exactly like commissioned salespeople who pretend to be professionals and fiduciaries; what they offer is tainted by conflicts, usually undisclosed, often damaging.

And just like the advisors living in a world full of salespeople who pretend to be objective professionals, the real journalists are greatly outnumbered and somewhat hard to find.  Responding to Angie, I can only hope that sooner or later the public will be able to distinguish between professional advisors and the sales agents who pretend to be sitting on the same side of the table as their customers, and between the writers/reporters who are committed to uncovering the truth about our world, from the entertainers and shills who are currently creating so much of what we read and see and hear.