Image Credit: Bugle megaphone, Fort Totten (1917), Library of Congress
By Jason Zweig | Oct. 5, 2020 10:25 pm ET
Note: I recently won the Elliott V. Bell Award from the New York Financial Writers’ Association and gave a little speech on the good work financial journalists can still do. The text follows. You can also click here for the video, which includes an hour-long panel discussion I did with the great Gretchen Morgenson and Allan Sloan.
Thank you so much, Matt. And thanks to everyone for being here…wherever that is.
What an honor and privilege it is for me to share this award with so many colleagues, mentors, and friends.
I worked for the second winner of the Elliott Bell award, the great Jim Michaels, for almost nine years. When he made me Forbes’ mutual-funds editor in 1992, I asked him for advice. He said: “Don’t get anybody’s blood on your hands” — by which he meant we have an unshirkable duty never to pander to our readers and never to repeat Wall Street’s propaganda without scrutiny.
And the 34th and 35th winners, Allan Sloan and Gretchen Morgenson, who’ll join me on this evening’s panel, have been my ethical exemplars for decades.
I’ve worked with at least 11 previous winners of the Elliott Bell award and am friends with many more. I can’t possibly name every winner I admire, because I admire them all.
I’d like to thank my wonderful editors at the Journal: mainly Charles Forelle, Emily Gitter, Erik Holm, and especially Dave Reilly, who never stops pushing me to dig deeper and write tighter.
And now, a word about something that isn’t true.
Journalists on other beats seem to look down on us — as if, while they’re exploring important ideas and lofty ideals, we’re rooting around in the septic tanks of society.
I’ve heard other reporters say, “Oh, that’s just service journalism,” as if serving our readers by helping them make better financial decisions were somehow beneath the dignity of people who cover, say, professional sports…or Congress…or the White House.
What nonsense! If the point of journalism isn’t to serve our readers, what is the point?
As the writer Peter Bernstein said: “Believe me, when people have told you about their money, they have told you the most important fact about themselves. Their sex lives, problems with their children, their political views, are all secondary.”
To enlighten people about money is to illuminate what is often the darkest and most anxiety-ridden part of their lives. Every time we expose a fraud or demystify a complexity, we help make someone’s future more secure. Financial journalism is beneath nobody’s dignity. Done right, it’s as noble a calling as I know of.
And it’s fascinating, because of what it tells us about human nature.
Markets are quoted in numbers, but what they trade in is emotions. Markets simply determine prices for risks and rewards over time. Among those risks are not just financial losses, but the surprise and fear and regret they bring. Among those rewards are not just monetary gains, but hope and greed and pride.
Along that axis of time, all these emotions play out as people become unimaginably rich and then go bust, turn from nobodies into geniuses and then into fools, as the goddess of fortune spins her wheel, raising the last to be first, then spinning it again and relegating the first back to last.
The goddess of fortune, though, operates from behind a curtain. Our job is to lift the curtain and show everyone that she is there, silently, blindly, capriciously turning her wheel, again and again and again, as she will until the end of time.
I like to say that the financial markets are the greatest show on earth, and at The Wall Street Journal I have a front-row seat at the circus. Even so, once every few weeks, I think we’ll have to run white space where my column is supposed to be. Yet, lo and behold, the market always provides: a bubble, a crash, a scam, a scandal, a comeback from nowhere, a hot hand gone cold, a regulation gone wrong, a fund manager gone rogue, a computer program gone wild. And so, just in the nick of time, I get my latest glimpse of which way the goddess of fortune has spun her wheel, and there’s my 800 words for the weekend.
So: When I heard I’d won this lifetime achievement award, my first thought was Oh no, my career is over! My second thought was, I want to be the first person to win it more than once!
No, I’m not ready to give up my front-row seat at the greatest show on earth. The show must go on! And it will go on. And we will expose it, cover it, explain it, and illuminate it. And, if we do our job right, we will not only help our readers understand the financial markets; we will help them understand themselves.
Thank you again.
For further reading:
Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor
Jason Zweig,The Devil’s Financial Dictionary
Jason Zweig, Your Money and Your Brain
Jason Zweig, The Little Book of Safe Money
Articles and other resources: