Economists and CEOs on news TV

Making a substantive point on a news TV discussion may be among the toughest jobs in modern economies and I have often wondered whether the ones..

Written by Saubhik Chakrabarti | Published:July 11, 2009 3:20 am

Making a substantive point on a news TV discussion may be among the toughest jobs in modern economies and I have often wondered whether the ones who have it the toughest in this tough job are economists. Say,you are an articulate,public policy-conversant,very bright economist and you are suddenly confronted by a slightly weird question that you take 45 seconds to understand but all you have are 120 seconds in which to comprehend the question and give an intelligent reply — can you still get across your expertise and perceptivity?

This question bothers me especially during budget coverage,as some very good economists and some very capable economic journalists try to honour the rigours of economics in a scrum of anchors,CEOs and random middle class and upper middle class interviewees TV channels insist on describing as representatives of common people.

I know,because I am familiar with their work,that these economists/economic journalists I am watching on TV can always say something intelligent in an interesting fashion — but TV doesn’t have time.

News TV will argue that it is necessary,perhaps even logical that anchors not-quite-au fait with the issues at hand can pass around a complex economic policy issue between panelists,thereby effectively wasting the expert on the panel. Thus it was that NDTV’s and CNN-IBN’s budget coverage severely underemployed economists and economic journalists the channels had invited on that day.

NDTV’s decision to have a business chamber leading light as a budget coverage co-anchor didn’t work. The co-anchor took the discussion straight to a business type and therefore NDTV lost its traditional budget day edge: starting off with a relatively uninterrupted summary of the budget’s economics that comes from the channel’s economist/economic journalist panelists.

NDTV looked liked it has been a target of a takeover attempt by a dozen CEOs all of whom had demanded a seat on the budget panel,while CNN-IBN demonstrated that inclusive budget discussion,like inclusive growth,can be a concept hard to implement. There were MPs who had nothing to contribute bar their being TV regulars.

Sometimes the CNN-IBN panel had up to three economists plus one knowledgeable co-anchor from the CNBC stable,but still the discussion had the same quality as government welfare programmes: fragmentary and only 15 per cent of every decibel produced effectively reaching the audience.

It’s not that economics and news TV are structurally unsuited to each other. When there’s time,as there’s during a long interview,and if the interviewers are good,there’s plenty that’s interesting. NDTV’s and CNN-IBN’s interviews with Pranab Mukherjee were both good,as was the ET Now journalist’s interview with the PM. ET now impressed with its during-budget-speech analysis — very sharp,probably indication of strong backend resources — but it wasn’t equally noticeable in its budget coverage. Like on NDTV and CNBC,there were too many CEOs.

Hats off to the CNN-IBN panelist who said there’s little point asking CEOs to be objective about the budget on live TV. Private investment explains India’s economic surge but the men and women who decide on most of this investment are among the most anodyne and,frankly,boring TV guests on budget day.

How wonderful would it be to hear a CEO say this: if a budget doesn’t make people like me feel more optimistic about the future,then given that private investment drives growth,I would say this budget has fallen short of what the economy needed. Then an economist would get at least 5 minutes to parse the CEO’s thesis. Then an anchor will pithily sum it all up. You have dream budgets. That will be dream budget coverage.

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