CNBC and Me

 | Mar 24, 2014 | 2:00 PM EDT  | Comments
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"The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium -- that is, of any extension of ourselves -- result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology."

-- Marshall McLuhan

I have for some time considered writing this morning's column, but I have held back.

Sir Larry Kudlow's retirement from "The Kudlow Report" and the actions taken by CNBC to deny my appearance on his last show, however, have precipitated the writing of today's opening missive.

Having had a close personal and business relationship with Larry and having appeared so many times on "The Kudlow Report" over the years (particularly leading up to and during the crisis in 2006-2009), I offered to appear on Larry's last show, as I wanted to pay tribute to his years of contributions on CNBC.

In early March, I paid homage to Larry in an open letter on Real Money Pro.

Larry was enthusiastic to have me on but I have been informed that CNBC's upper management has pushed back and does not want me to appear on Larry's final show.

Before I explain the apparent reason and tension between CNBC and myself that resulted in the network's refusal of my offer to appear on the final "The Kudlow Report" and why I have not appeared on CNBC since late last summer -- I have been well aware of CNBC's policy towards me for some time -- let me digress and give some perspective to my past relationship with CNBC.

Since 2003 I had been a frequent guest host on "Squawk Box," starting in the old days with Mark Haines, David Faber and Joe Kernen. As well, I appeared on over 100 occasions on "The Kudlow Report," "Fast Money," "Squawk on the Street." "Closing Bell," "Mad Money," etc., and I have been a CNBC contributor for the past four years.

In the main, I have taken a contrarian view of the capital markets in those appearances. I am not a perma-bear, as witnessed by my call of generational bottom, on "The Kudlow Report" during the first week of March in 2009 and the "buy on dip" mantras on "Fast Money" during the summers of 2010 and 2011. At periods in 2013, however, I was a very vocal bear on CNBC (reminiscent of my appearances on "Squawk Box" and "The Kudlow Report" in 2007-2008).

I like to think that my often contrarian analysis of the markets is thoughtful, well-reasoned, logical and presented clearly. Unlike some, when wrong, as I am frequently, I admit it publicly with no excuses.

Apparently, based on the frequency of my appearances, CNBC thought I provided value-added content up until August 2013.

My CNBC Friends

Though I haven't appeared on CNBC since last August, I have continued to actively exchange ideas (via email and phone) with my many friends at the network, including (but not exclusively with) Scott Wapner, Steve Liesman, Kelly Evans, Brian Sullivan, Rick Santelli, Andrew Sorkin, Becky Quick, many on "Fast Money" (Melissa Lee, Dennis Gartman, Karen Finerman, 'Chaminade' Joe Terranova, Tim Seymour, Dan Nathan, Guy Adami) and, of course, my comrades at arms on TheStreet, Jim "El Capitan" Cramer and Stephanie Link. I have also maintained close ties to a number of CNBC producers, often giving them ideas for questions to ask guests, etc.

No doubt I will continue to maintain these ties even if CNBC fails to ever invite me back on the air.

L'affaire CNBC

Last August I was interviewed by the New York Post regarding my criticism of the media's generally overblown coverage of Apple (AAPL) following Carl Icahn's initial share purchase. (Here is the story.)

The thrust of my comments to the New York Post reporter, which embodied what I viewed as constructive criticism of the business media (CNBC, Bloomberg, Fox Business Network, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, etc.), was not specific to CNBC.

The New York Post's column, however, beginning with the inflammatory title "CNBC Cheerleaders," turned out to a direct attack on CNBC. The column incorporated remarks I had made in a private email to CNBC's Scott Wapner that I did not intend to share with anyone. The reporter created the illusion that my criticism was directed solely at CNBC and failed to disclose in the New York Post column (as I told her explicitly in a telephone call) that I had written similar emails to commentators at Bloomberg and Fox Business Network.

Apparently (before the story was published), someone on the CNBC staff forwarded a personal email (without my permission) that I had sent specifically to "Fast Money: Halftime Report's" Scott Wapner (which was CC'd to the other panelists) to the reporter at the New York Post. The thrust of the email was that the excitement related to Apple share purchases -- to jog your memories, Carl Icahn announced an Apple share position of slightly over $1 billion, and the follow-up news was that Lee Cooperman's Omega Advsiors purchased 31,000 shares of Apple stock in the prior three-month reporting period -- was not that consequential. In that email I wrote to Scott that Icahn's purchase was de minimis relative to the $450 billion Apple market cap and that in the case of Omega Advisors, the 31,000 purchase represented only a few tenths of 1% of Omega's assets under management.

In the email I also suggested that a deeper dive and analysis of the possible impact of the two purchases should have been adopted by CNBC and that the excitement should be put into the proper perspective. (I believe, at the time, Lee separately communicated the limited consequences and importance of Omega's modest purchase directly to Scott as well.)

The New York Post only quoted my email to Scott (which wasn't meant to be made public and without my permission) and suggested my criticism was aimed only at CNBC, which was not accurate. (Again, I had sent similar emails about the coverage of the Apple story to Bloomberg and Fox Business Network.)

While the New York Post column centered on the personal email, the thrust of my criticism is that, too often, all of the business media slides into hyperbole and sometimes superficial reporting that has a sensationalistic title but fails to put the events in the proper perspective.

To be fair, the reporter closed her story with a quote that I had sent her in an email, but the damage had already been done with the over-the-top title of the column and the release of the aforementioned personal email:

My criticism is of the entire media business. The reason I point this out is because the small investor piles in when Apple is up 10 percent. It's caveat emptor, but the poor lemmings pay top dollar....

The job [of the business media] is not to regurgitate the headline, but to provide additional information to the retailer. These activists have learned how to basically manipulate the news purveyors and it's a very dangerous thing. It's good for people's careers and you all do it to gain favor without thinking about it. This is a very important story.

-- Doug Kass, "CNBC Cheerleaders" by Claire Atkinson (New York Post; Aug. 18, 2013)

The day the New York Post article was published, I emailed the reporter and emphasized, again (because I had sent her a previous email before the article was published and spoke to her on the phone), that my criticism was aimed at general business media reporting and not directly to CNBC.

But by that time it was too late as the column was already published.

Upon reflection, I suppose, it was the New York Post being the New York Post.

But, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had not even spoken to them. Since someone at CNBC sent the New York Post reporter a personal email I had sent to Scott Wapner, I wanted to clarify my general criticism of the media. That clarification was to no avail, however, as one can see from the printed New York Post story.

Again, it should be emphasized that the New York Post has had a history of writing critical, overblown and embellished columns about CNBC. Remember Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (NWSA) founded CNBC competitor Fox Business Network and owns the New York Post -- Twenty-First Century Fox (FOX) was spun off from News Corporation in 2013, but both companies are still Murdoch controlled.

I felt after the New York Post article was published (and I still do) that I was exploited by the New York Post to continue its tradition of unjustifiably (and in a highly colored and sensational manner) taking snipes at CNBC, a competitor to the Murdoch-controlled Fox Business Network.

On the Subject of Criticism

Let me end by moving away from the New York Post column and write in general about my ideas and concepts regarding the role of criticism in the media and of those talking heads (myself included) who appear in the media.

All of us can be better at what we do; we can always improve on the quality of our job performance.

This is particularly true as it relates to the investment business, in which the mosaic and narrative are complex, ever changing and nonlinear.

Relatedly, Gail Collins quotes Gloria Steinem in Sunday's New York Times editorial op-ed section: "We're so accustomed to narratives, we expect there's going to be a conclusion, or explanation or answer to the secret.... And probably the answer is, there isn't."

I can always manage money better, I can always improve on my analysis, and I can gain greater objectivity.

Similarly, all of the business media can always improve upon their delivery of the news.

I frequently try to be self-critical of myself in my diary on Real Money Pro, often trying to plot how to do it better. And I am not shy in giving my opinion how others should do a better job -- always in a respectful way.

As an example, in my recent column "I Don't Know," I emphasized the importance and need of more rigorous analysis over the attraction of instantaneous entertainment in the business media:

The fact is that snark (a combination of snide and remark) and opinion far too often envelop the business media instead of facts and figures. Equally infuriating is the confidence of view in the delivery of the snark. Sometimes the reason for this is out of necessity, as the media appearances are typically brief and expected to be on point. Nevertheless, in a world characterized by an absence of certainty and an interrelated and a complicated market mosaic (and complexity of issues) without memory from day to day, too many attach self-confident reasons to randomness.

Of course, there are exceptions. Consider as an example, the preparation that Jim "El Capitan" Cramer goes through when he interviews a corporate executive on "Mad Money." Another example is CNBC's "Squawk Box" with Joe Kernen, Becky Quick and Andrew Sorkin, which provides a guest host with one to three hours to do a deeper dive in analysis (e.g., just watch Jim Grant's appearance yesterday, which was solid and thoughtful in analysis). Or Bloomberg's "Market Surveillance" in which Tom Keene shares the spotlight with an interviewee for almost a half an hour, digging into the analysis that forms the foundation of view.

Not every move in the markets is explainable, though far too many observers attach a reason for every wiggle and move. (Consider the 5% correction that was recently erased. Why? I have no clue, though many express a strong understanding in the moves.)

To some, the projection of confidence of view is seen as a validation of an intense and rigorous decision-making process. Increasingly, however, many are fooled by the abbreviated, simplistic, staccato- like explanations and conclusions, because, more often than not, the snark is shown to be wrong in short order as the curtain disclosing a mere human (not the Wizard of Oz) is revealed.

Delivering the Olive Branch

Over the past two decades my views (often contrarian) have been visible in many venues (e.g., in print, television and Twitter). Since many of my ideas/views are outside of consensus, I often attract haters who are typically shrouded in anonymity. Often I can't fight back, but it is something with which I have learned to live (particularly regarding my experience on Twitter).

Almost every media outlet serves up multiple views on a daily basis. Similar to my own views, it is natural for the media to be targets of criticism, especially since so many points of view are offered.

When I criticize the media, I don't hide; I like to think that I am open, transparent and respectful. I say what is on my mind, but I do it with a sense of fairness.

To this observer, constructive and courteous criticism should be encouraged not rejected.

If my delivery of criticism is misinterpreted as disrespectful, that is a mistake, or at least, that it was not my intention. We must all recognize that in the heat of the market's battle, it is not uncommon to say or write sharply worded views that can easily be misconstrued (and certainly be misconstrued by competing media platforms).

I expect and welcome criticism of my own analysis and decisions when others view me as misguided or wrong -- again, as long as it is respectful.

The Medium Is the Message

In response to my contribution to the New York Post story, I have not been invited on CNBC since August 2013.

I recognize that there are ample examples of talking heads being barred from appearing on CNBC, and many reasons can be cited.  In some cases (you all know who I am referring to) those disinvited guests persistently retaliate and hold a personal grudge.

But that is not my style.

To me, respectful, courteous, objective and thoughtful criticism should be at the epicenter of market and economic discourse in the business media and elsewhere.

What better example is there than Warren Buffett, who invited me ("the credentialed bear") to appear on stage at Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A/BRK.B) annual shareholders meeting in Omaha last May to play the role of Daniel in the lion's den by asking him and Charlie Munger some hard-hitting and critical questions.

One-sided, dogmatic views from perma-bulls and perma-bears don't necessarily provide value-added commentary. But to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan the media should acknowledge both its conformists and troublemakers in order to avoid what he said was adopting what we behold.

"In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is a hallucinating idiot ... for he sees what no one else does: things that, to everyone else, are not there."

-- Marshall McLuhan

As an aside, I also want to mention that being occasionally wrong on the markets is not a reason to not invite guests. If that was the case, CNBC and Bloomberg would have very few guests available to appear and talk their books back in 2007 to early 2009.

Though some of my market views have been misguided recently -- I have been cautious in a bull market -- many of the stock ideas that I have delivered on CNBC (and in other media outlets) have been exceptional:

  • Altisource Portfolio Solutions (ASPS), rose from $13 in 2009 to over $200 (adjusted for spin-offs).
  • My "stock of the decade," Altisource Asset Management (AAMC) rose from $70 to over $1,200 last year.
  • Lincoln National (LNC), often mentioned on "Fast Money," has tripled).
  • Ocwen Financial (OCN), Altisource Residential (RESI), Monitise (MONI.L/MONIF, which more than doubled since last year) and closed-end municipal bond funds (14 in total, which, on average, are up 10% since late December 2013) have all handsomely rewarded investors.

To be sure, the absence of my appearances on CNBC over the past six months is not the end of the world for CNBC nor for me.

CNBC will continue to thrive as the most important business television network extant, and I certainly have numerous public media platforms in which I regularly appear or am quoted.

As I started this morning's missive, Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that the medium is the message.

The Bottom Line

This morning I am reaching out to CNBC to put my comments in the New York Post in the proper perspective, to discontinue the Dougie Kass CNBC embargo and to reconsider its decision not to invite me onto Larry's final show.

It would give me great pleasure in honoring a great American and good friend this week on CNBC.

As I have written today, respectful disagreement should be encouraged not discouraged.

Invite me on CNBC based on the merits of my analysis, the originality of my views and my ability to communicate an opinion clearly and succinctly. Don't continue to be influenced by a one-sided, misconstrued and biased (CNBC-hating) New York Post column published last August.

The olive branch has been offered to CNBC.


This column originally appeared on Real Money Pro at 10:39 a.m. EDT on March 24.

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