Don't Buy Amazonian Hype

False declarations of victory ignore perspective and endanger investors.
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One of these holiday seasons, The Business Press Maven is going to fall into a serene silence, but mark my coarse and high-decibel soul: until Amazon (AMZN) - Get Report stops being allowed to print its own holiday headlines, all bets for serenity are off.

Last year, as always, Amazon issued a comical press release, which for the business media proved a serious call to action.

The press release was headlined: "Amazon.com's 12th Holiday Season is Best Ever," and it was hastily repeated by

The Associated Press

: "Amazon.com Has 'Best Ever' Sales in 2006." Sounds a

tad familiar, no?

Never mind that achieving a raw sales record on a year-over-year basis in the young and quickly expanding field of online retailing is no accomplishment. It's expected. Amazon, after all, was not talking about profit (which is the only thing that matters) and was incredibly nonspecific when bragging about "more than" 4 million orders placed on a certain day in early December.

It's not that any top-line/number-of-goods-sold number is completely worthless, but if that's all you're giving, at least track its long-term growth rate on a year-over-year basis. In 2005 when, yes, the company did the same song and dance, it was at least specific about this meaningless number, which brings us to this year.

On Wednesday spake Amazon, in a familiar-sounding and self-satisfied press release: "

Amazon.com Wraps Up Its 13th Holiday Season With Best Season Ever."

In this holiday season, of course, online retail is growing at approximately a 20% clip, so having the best season ever on a sales basis is close to meaningless. Unless Amazon was talking about profits and ... uh, it wasn't.

But look at how well Amazon plays the game, which is to say how well it orchestrates the game. In an industry (retail) that is struggling and earning a lot of appropriately negative headlines, Amazon's mix of preening over how many individual items it sold and insertion of interesting facts about these items carries the day.

This mix serves as good as dictation for the business media, which is willing to completely ignore how false a mark of accomplishment like a sales record is in a field like online retailing, which is growing by leaps and bounds, without any mention of a bottom line, the only thing that matters to investors.

Here's a

Reuters

headline: "

Amazon says 2007 holiday season strongest ever."

Sounds a tad familiar, no? At this point, I don't know whether we are talking Amazon's press releases from this year or last year or the coverage that followed from this year ... or last year.

The lead compares Amazon's nonaccomplishment to the past, when the field of online retailing was still wetting its bed:

"Shares of online U.S. retailer Amazon.com Inc (NasdaqGS:AMZN - News) rose more than 2 percent on Wednesday after the online retailer said the 2007 holiday season was its strongest since it opened in 1994."

Then the reporter goes off and running with all of Amazon's colorful little facts about what sold per second and peacoats and bionic eye games. But, again, nothing about profits and, of course, no raised eyebrow that Amazon is taking a victory lap over what is, from an investor's perspective, a false accomplishment.

But

Forbes

went even further than

Reuters

, putting that contrast with the overall retail environment in bold relief, going so far as to declare Amazon's results ... jolly!

"Amazon's strong results contrasted with the overall weak sales data more broadly. Stocks in traditional retailers, including Target ... and Wal-Mart ... Amazon's holiday was much jollier."

The appropriate lead comparison, of course, should be with other online retailers ... or at least the online retail divisions of traditional retailers. But Amazon's media relations department did not go there, so neither did these dutiful scribes.

Anyhow, if you think Amazon's virtually commissioned coverage of holiday sales is bad, this is guaranteed to hit you in the debt balance. Warren Buffett acquired a $4.5 billion stake in manufacturing conglomerate Marmon (in a deal not covered in a timely fashion by the business section of newspapers like the

Newark Star-Ledger

, which decided to forgo running a business section on Dec. 26 to save money).

So after Mr. Buffett goes shopping, he goes on

CNBC

and says the most innocuous thing when questioned about acquisitions of financial firms. And what does that translate into for some of the business media? Buffett, after all, has scant history with financials (Salomon Brothers, a major headache, was such a departure that he had to get his hands dirty managing).

But check out

this headline and lead from the

New York Daily News

that followed the

CNBC

interview: "After latest deal, Warren Buffett may like financial sector."

You know you may have overstated the case when, by comparison, the

New York Post

looks understated in its headline and lead on the same subject: "

WARREN'S REBUFF SAGE OF OMAHA NOT KEEN TO BAIL OUT BANKS."

Still scarred from his ill-fated bailout of Salomon Brothers 20 years ago, Warren Buffett says he's not interested in rescuing any more Wall Street titans from troubles of their own making.

Ah, troubles of their own making. Finally familiar ground for the business media. Investors, beware. And be aware.

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;

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