Media See 12 Sides to the Retail Number

And they're mostly all wrong. Why don't they just admit they don't know?
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The Business Press Maven advises you to not try this at home. It may, even with my own high level of expertise, be a futile course of action ... but I am going to try to come to terms with how the business media could have said so many different things about the same May retail sales numbers.

Ready? Strap yourself in.

Forbes

, for its part,

got jiggy with declaring a comeback from April's false lows: "Retailing Rebounds From Rough April," it blurted excitedly in a headline, with fill-out in the lead: "May same-store sales figures released by retailers showed that sales were up from a dismal April, with particular strength among ultra-discount retailers."

Reuters

, for its part, also declares victory, though it credits (ugh, don't get me going) the weather. "Retailers Say Better Weather Warms Sales," it says. But do you remember what

Forbes

just said about the "ultra-discount retailers" doing well? Here's the

Reuters

take, and it comes in a bold-print heading, no less: "

LOW END WOES WEIGH ON OUTLOOK."

I guess one business journalist's "particular strength" is another's "woes." And how do you know that

Reuters

is a little confused on the larger meaning of these retail sales numbers?

Well, look at

another headline atop that same article. That second one didn't say what the first did: "Retailers Say Better Weather Warms Sales." The second one said: "Retail Sales Warm Up But Don't Sizzle."

Holy conflicting statements, Batman!

Both

Investor's Business Daily

and

The Wall Street Journal

sally forth with weather metaphors in their headlines that say totally opposite things.

Said

Investor's Business Daily

: "

Retailers See Sales Spring Back In May As Most Beat Views."

Said

The Wall Street Journal

: "

Retail Sales Fail to Disperse Clouds."

And you wonder why, when he reads the business media, it is always raining in The Business Press Maven's soul. Put the two leads beside each other. Then read them and weep.

Investor's Business Daily

: "After a bleak April, retailers posted stronger-than-expected May sales, with most beating views, as pent-up demand from the season's slow start drove shoppers to purchase summer goods."

The Wall Street Journal

: "The nation's retailers reported modest sales increases for May, but a persistent slowdown in consumer spending could threaten their results in the crucial fall and holiday season."

So, after my death-defying feat, I bet you are going to ask for the rock-solid answer: What, precisely, in no uncertain terms, did this single month of retail sales say about the ultimate direction of the consumer economy?

Well, lean in and listen close. Because I'm going to say something the business media never can:

From these particular numbers, I don't know. I have a better chance of predicting the fate of Tony Soprano this Sunday than I do the direction of the economy -- or even retail sales -- from this little blip of a monthly number.

Do you see? "I have no freakin' idea" -- the only appropriate response to these May numbers, especially coming after weird April numbers -- cannot be woven into a tidy little headline. So you won't read it. But it's the only appropriate answer in such cases.

In fact, the business media probably make the bulk of their nearly undocumentable number of mistakes because they cannot admit to the most basic reality of humanity: In many cases, it is impossible to detect a larger pattern from one little sample of numbers.

Dudes, just admit it once in a while. You will mislead fewer investors, avoid looking foolish as an industry when you are all over the map on the same number and, incredibly, build readers' confidence in your ultimate ability to make decent assessments.

Of course, even with The Business Press Maven traveling across the country to

reprimand all the big dogs of the business media, change won't come about.

But you, my savvy little investor, must not be fooled by a business media that will never admit when they don't know something ... just because "I Don't Know" cannot be woven into a headline.

One side issue here:

I don't frequently highlight work by

TheStreet.com

, if only to avoid charges of favoritism. And I even less frequently agree to look at reported statistics in a different way. Revising the way statistics are reported is the tool of the devil. But I do want to play with the devil for just a moment here.

From just after the earth cooled until recently,

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

has been a retail bellwether. In other words, you could look at its sales to get some sense of what the overall retail environment looked like.

But Wal-Mart, more recently, has had some specific problems. Its merchandising has been, in a word, totally lame. I could do a better job filling shelves with apparel and home items, the company's high-margin bread and butter. Yet Wal-Mart is so incredibly big at this point that it skews the overall numbers -- those same overall numbers it no longer represents.

So look at what Marc Lichtenfeld does in an article called "

Don't Be Fooled: Retail Sales Were Strong."

He says that despite what the naysayers say, retail sales showed hidden strength. Then, operating without a net, he looks at the overall same-store sales numbers with Wal-Mart (2.9%) and -- here's the key -- without. Without, they popped 4.4%.

Respectable indeed -- unlike all that disparate coverage.

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;

click here

to send him an email.