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Lehman Media Coverage Unforgivably Sloppy

Forced to work on the weekend, reporters botch several key facts and themes in the coverage of Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy.

The news of Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy struck big and hard over the weekend, when most self-respecting reporters were inebriated in a dark, depressing bar or were with their families, wishing they were inebriated in a dark, depressing bar.

The news of

Lehman Brothers'

(LEH)

bankruptcy would be hard to wrap our heads around on any day. The fact that it came on a weekend, calling reporters and editors into action from home -- or forcing them to work from home with little ones were tugging on their shirts asking them to play Barbies -- resulted in a particularly high number of errors in their reporting, both factual and thematic. Though The Business Press Maven can normally dwell on other people's mistakes forever, I'll limit myself to four mistakes of either fact or theme:

CNNMoney

went with this dumbbell of a lead:

"After enduring one of the most dramatic days in its history, Wall Street received a climactic jolt on Monday when Lehman Brothers, a 158-year-old investment bank undermined by bad bets on real estate, said it will file for bankruptcy."

Climactic jolt? Never mind the imagery, how many times are we going to have to put up with the business media declaring a bottom, a dramatic turning point, a climax for the financials. Even as Lehman topples, we have AIG teetering. If Lehman's meltdown was a "climactic jolt," what might AIG be later in the week? My imagination fails me.

The New York Times

plain flubbed the definition of a long-short fund here:

"His is a so-called long-short fund, which means he invests $2 buying shares in companies for every $1 he places shorting other companies."

In the same article, from the lead onward,

The Times

harnessed David Einhorn, the hedge fund manager who was the earliest and most prominent shorter of Lehman and critic of the stock's woeful accounting, to the type of shorts (and there are plenty) who spread false rumors for quickie trades:

TheStreet Recommends

"In May, David Einhorn, one of the most vocal short sellers on Wall Street, made no secret he was betting against Lehman Brothers. Now, some investors are afraid that fund managers like him will take advantage of the climate of fear stirred up by the troubles of Lehman to single out other weak financial firms whose declining share prices would bring them rich rewards."

There needs to be a distinction made. In fact, if Lehman management had admitted it's to blame in all this, and had spent more time fixing its errors and less time deriding Einhorn, it might just have saved itself. More than that, in the absence of a business media that understands accounting and can serve as a legitimate Fourth Estate, those legitimate shorts like Einhorn have a role to play in keeping the market on the up-and-up. Management teams all over America live in fear of Einhorn poring over their balance sheets; that's a good thing.

Look at this headline from

Barron's

: "A Hellacious Hurricane Hits Lehman Brothers."Never mind the trite reference to the more serious disaster that happened this weekend in Texas. Nothing "hit" Lehman, except itself. Lehman's demise is a cautionary tale about valuing securities on a whim and prayer.

We used to hear that as General Motors goes, so goes America. But

The New York Times

told us this weekend that the American economy won't shape up until Wall Street does:

"Until the worst turmoil on Wall Street ends, the economy will struggle," said Sung Won Sohn, an economist at California State University, Channel Islands, who studies financial markets. "Until and unless we have financial markets stabilize, I don't think we will see a meaningful recovery in housing, and therefore in the economy."

He said he expected economic growth to remain close to zero through the middle of 2009 before finally beginning to accelerate.

I'd side with Alan Greenspan, who said the opposite this weekend. He said that Wall Street won't recover until housing does. Wall Street doesn't lead, it reacts. And when the accounting is made up on the fly, the reaction -- despite all the attendant noise from the business media on personalities, evil shorts and potential white knights -- is seldom good.

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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