Ambivalence Is Media Bliss

The business media have yet to figure out when ambiguity is an asset, and when it's not.
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Will The Business Press Maven's misery ever abate? Ambivalence, that wimpiest of notions, has become the lens through which all is seen from the moment The Sopranos ended a couple of weeks ago.

I want to look at this new cultural touchstone, in terms of how business media has been explaining the world to investors. To wit: When is it appropriate to be ambivalent about what is happening in the business world, and when it is not? I'll give you one example of each, OK? And when it is appropriate, I'll even accept the use of question marks, the international

sign

of ambivalence, in headlines, understand?

As wimpy as it may be, of course, it is OK for the business media to throw up their hands in a question mark and say that they have no idea what is happening, if the situation applies. If there is one thing I've learned in life -- on Wall Street, in journalism and as a husband and father of three, it's that saying "I have no idea" is sometimes the smartest tactic of all. Forcing an answer when information is hazy and events are in flux is a disaster.

Yahoo! for Yahoo?

That's why I liked what I saw with the ambiguous approach this week on

Yahoo!'s

(YHOO)

turmoil. Terry Semel was picked up by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the CEO suite.

(Please take this moment to review how I

noted the similarities between Semel's vote of no confidence to Michael Eisner's, pre-firing -- despite the predictably laudatory coverage of the embattled Semel. More essential than bowing to my uncanny foresight, realize once again that you can sometimes see the future in the business media's work -- quite often, in the opposite direction from the one that is portrayed.)

Anyhow, co-founder Jerry Yang is back, and who knows what will happen, right? At this point, I certainly don't. All I know is that whether it's Semel or Yang, Yahoo! has more challenges than you can shake a stick at.

And the worst thing you could do is build a very straightforward decisive story line drawing a similarity between Yang's comeback and the one made by, say, Steve Jobs, the

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

founder who returned and fixed everything. Jobs is a single entity, a lone genius. Besides, Yang's job might be tougher. Maybe it's only just as tough.

At this stage, who knows? In a headline this week, Forbes asked: "

What Are Yang's Odds?"

And though the second sentence took Jobs' name in vain, the article rightly planted both feet firmly in the air, not giving a pat answer on whether Yang would right the ship, or even stay on the ship. It mentioned some comeback founders who have succeeded, and some who haven't.

If you thought that article was the definition of ambivalent, you haven't read Business Week's "

Back to the Future at Yahoo!" Wait, that's an exclamation point in the headline -- maybe it means a hard, definite opinion. Nah, the exclamation point is part of Yahoo!'s name, plus the subheadline ends with the requisite question mark, a badge of ambivalence: "With co-founder Jerry Yang at the helm, morale may soar and turnover could plummet. But will profit make a comeback?"

Beginning with that question mark, the article ends on an almost comically ambivalent note: "If Yang can somehow reverse the flow of talent and get that well of goodwill working in his favor, Yahoo may yet score with its 'Hail Jerry' pass."

Translation:

If

93 hard-to-define things happen,

then

it just might work. Maybe.

And you know what? That sort of nonsense serves investors better than any of the lamebrain articles drawing legitimate parallels to Steve Jobs or, conversely, dismissing Yang's chances out of hand. Right now, it's irresponsible to do either because no one knows the answer.

A House Divided

But when it came this week to the seemingly contradictory simultaneous reports that housing starts were down and permits were up, I did know. An ambivalent approach here was not appropriate, despite surface appearances that the statistics were headed in opposite directions.

The housing start number -- down 2.1% in May -- was really bad. And the permit number -- up -- while appearing much better, was not. Permits, while seeming to hint at future action, are actually quite volatile in the first place, and this decent-looking mirage was composed in large part of multifamily-home permits, lower-end stuff. Single-family home permits were in the tur-let, down 1.8%, the worst in almost a decade.

In other words, these were not separate-but-equal statistics to be set side by side to reach the wimpy conclusion that we should split the difference about the housing market, e.g., maybe the environment is bad now, but is getting better. Now watch

Reuters

: "

Housing starts slip in May, but permits up." We are off and running in the first sentence talking about "mixed signals," and there is one analyst pointing one way, while another analyst pointed another.

Ambivalence with Yahoo! was prudent. Ambivalence here with housing is a lie. And that's the truth, Ruth.

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

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;

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