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Ben Stein Must Be Stopped

So many points to pontificate about, so little time.

First, let me begin with a first. I have never warned readers away from any one columnist or journalist, but after reading his column this weekend in The New York Times , I feel obligated to tell readers to never read Ben Stein again.

In indicting traders and lackeys in the press for the subprime selloff, Stein offers not one shred of evidence. Moreover, his implication that traders would purposefully tank the subprime market because they are short stock belies the reality that almost every Wall Street firm is getting creamed because they were not short. And traders are getting laid off left and right. Again: because they were not short.

They Just Don't Get Big Macs and AMEX!

He speaks about a wise brother-in-law who apparently once explained the legal system to him. He mentions a trader he once spoke to about a movement in the price of IBM. And that's it.

He goes on to raise an eyebrow about the spread between the size of the write-offs and size of the market losses, without mentioning that part of the market losses have to do with the fact that no one knows where these securities should be priced (unknown is the greatest market fear) and, uh, there has been a concern or six about the economy besides subprime taking down prices.

I have seen a lot of bad business journalism in my day, but nothing as irresponsible and so wholly unsupported by facts. Actually, by even a single fact. This is his last line:

"And one thing's for sure: With the traders running things, it won't be a good time for amateurs until the traders cry "Switch!" and the market starts to rise."

Read it (if you promise me it'll be the last of his work you read) and tell me if this effort is any better than the braying on conspiracy Web sites. It was a shameful effort.

Now, let's review coverage of this afternoon's American Express (AXP) report ahead of time. What is the key element we must remember about American Express' earnings, to be reported after the close of the market today? I'll give you a hint:

1) It's the element most frequently ignored by the business media, those short-term little devils with memories like sieves.
2) It'll tell us better than anything how American Express and the American consumer have fared in the past few weeks. Profit or pestilence? We'll have some idea. We'll also know how good of a bead American Express has on the health of its own house.

Only three weeks ago, in the defining event of today's report, the lens through which it should be seen, American Express chopped numbers pretty severely. All the numbers, that is, except for items like delinquencies in its U.S. loan holdings, write-off rates and a charge. They were way up.

Too often, the business media report on earnings vs. expectations without ever mentioning when those expectations were last tweaked. It is of tantamount importance that these numbers were worse only three weeks ago. Any report on AmEx's fourth quarter that does not mention this prominently is not worth reading. If the company does not meet these recently set expectations, it is especially bad news and the report should be written accordingly. If AmEx hits the numbers, it is better than the alternative, but does not mean all that much, considering the ink on the numbers is hardly dry.

Now to Apple (AAPL) and the Case of the Missing iPhones. Let me be clear: most of the time, when the business media luck into a story that lends itself to murder mystery headlines, I am weary of too much being made of the issue because of its catchiness. When an industry which usually spends its days crafting headlines like "Merrill Takes Another Write-Down," gets to tap into their inner Agatha Christie, well, the temptation to go too far is there. But this is an important issue and as someone who has taken a lot of heat since its introduction by doubting that the iPhone would be a source of long-term strength for a company I had never before criticize ... well, I would be surprised if one too many iPhone were sitting in inventory of closets, gathering dust. But stay i-tuned to this one, despite the fact that the jazziness of the headlines would have otherwise made The Business Press Maven more weary.

At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.

Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column for six years. He also did back-up beat coverage of The New York Knicks for the paper's Sports section for two seasons and covered other professional and collegiate sports. He has contributed frequently to many of the Times' other sections, including National, Metro, Escapes, Style, Real Estate, Arts & Leisure, Travel, Money & Business, Circuits and the Op-Ed Page. For his "Business Press Maven? column on how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz website at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs is a frequent speaker on the business media, in venues ranging from National Public Radio to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Fuchs appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.

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