Since this is The Deal's 10th anniversary issue, we initially planned to discuss how much has changed since we penned the first Media Maneuvers column back in 1999. In those days, we were primarily concerned with how deal news was reported in, or in most cases, purposefully leaked to, certain media outlets, notably The Wall Street Journal, as well as how the media reacted to M&A news. Back then, big transactions were usually met with cheers, except if an airline, local bank or similarly consumer-centric company was involved.
Our obsession with deal leaks and scoops subsided along with the boom that fueled it, resulting in a column that trained its occasionally gimlet eye on everything from basic business reporting to the media's coverage of Analystgate and other scandals, to the retirement-obsessed personal finance press. The media's growing mistrust of deals also supplied rich fodder for the mill -- "What are mergers good for?" The New York Times Magazine asked in 2005 -- as did the media's cartoonishly negative portrayal of Wall Streeters, including the time Slate likened investment bankers to dogs. As in not human.
These days, M&A remains on the column's agenda, of course, but in a world where everyone from big newspapers to bloggers to interested parties with Twitter accounts is scouring Wall Street for news, tracking deal scoops seems like an antiquated exercise. Today the media competes not so much to break M&A or Wall Street stories as to quickly offer opinions, thoughts and off-the-cuff observations about them, often with a side of snark -- then to fire back responses to other opinions. For instance, last week's big deal news, Kraft Foods Inc.'s unsolicited offer for Cadbury plc, was broken by absolutely no one, but the commentary machine kicked into high gear immediately to tell us what it means. A consensus quickly emerged: Deals are back! But maybe not!
So much for wondering what mergers are good for.
Deal reporting may have changed over the years, but one thing has remained the same: the media's desire to call and cover an M&A boom, to view it as a game, much like CNBC treats the stock market. In the wake of several big deal announcements in late August and September (Kraft-Cadbury, Disney-Marvel, eBay-Skype, among others), The New York Times and the Journal both cooed about the return of "Merger Monday." Of course, the reports contained a dutiful dose of skepticism -- "dealmaking is likely to rise only in fits and starts," warned the Times -- as well as reminders of the potential evils of deals. But overall, the prospect of a long and messy takeover battle, for a candy company no less, had the media aflutter, mostly because of what it says about the economy and the recovery. As London's Guardian put it in a headline, "The revival of M&A is better than a poke in the eye."
That's not quite the same level of euphoria the media had for deals back in 1999, but all the musing about a possible merger wave still had us feeling some déjà vu. And that sense crystallized last week, when the Times published a fulsome story about Oliver Stone preparing to film his long-awaited sequel to his 1987 movie, Wall Street, reportedly titled Money Never Sleeps.
In the Times, Stone expresses surprise that the intended villain of the piece, Gordon Gekko, inspired young people to seek careers on Wall Street. But at the same time, he takes credit for bringing "glamour" to finance and, by extension, to financial journalism. Stone (and the Times) can't seem to decide whether Gekko and Wall Street are indeed glamorous and enticing or greedy and repulsive. "We wouldn't have done this movie in 2006," Stone says in the story. "Things were too loose. I didn't want to glorify pigs." Gee, Oliver, tell us what you think. Does that mean that if Wall Street hadn't melted down, providing easy targets, you wouldn't have stirred? Or that even you sense the public's ambivalence for the joint?
The same ambivalence, of course, applies to how the media and the popular culture view deals and dealmaking. For 10 years, this column has watched the media struggle to decide whether deals and the people who make them are good or bad, glamorous or greedy. The truth is they are both -- good and bad, complicated and conflicted, depending on often complex, and poorly understood, situations. Alas, that doesn't make for good copy. Just ask Oliver Stone.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.
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