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Yvette Kantrow Headshot

It's the politics, stupid

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When it comes to finance and the media, it's hard to think of a more fitting end to the past decade and a beginning to the next than Arianna Huffington's Move Your Money campaign. For the uninitiated, Huffington is urging readers to withdraw their money from the four megabanks that benefited the most from government handouts and choose a small, community bank instead. She and her cohorts are using a video stuffed with clips from -- what else? -- "It's a Wonderful Life" to make their point and are even supplying a handy-dandy tool that allows people to search for highly rated community banks within their zip codes. (When I tried this feature, it suggested I patronize Bessemer Trust Co., an institution that requires a minimum balance of $10 million. Hmm.)

The video then went viral, and Huffington's initiative ignited the blogosphere, which gave it mostly positive reviews -- even as it grudgingly acknowledged that a big bank boycott is not likely to effect much actual change. But that seemed wholly beside the point. The campaign was applauded for empowering people to strike back at the big banks and their big, fat, bailout-enabled bonuses. Never mind that it is not likely to topple Bank of America Corp. or any of its peers anytime soon, the reasoning went; Move Your Money enables you, Little Guy, to at least attempt to hold someone responsible for the banking crisis. And wouldn't that feel good?

Indeed, the more this campaign picked up buzz, the more it seemed to be about making people feel good than anything else. It was, to use a word of the moment, about "optics" rather than substance. True, many of the "success stories" that The Huffington Post has recently published about the campaign talk about the money that some bank switchers have actually saved. But in the program's kickoff article, Huffington and her co-authors urged readers to send a message against too-big-too-fail and engage in "populism at its best." Finding the best deal for consumers was so far from the program's initial goal (Bessemer?) that it failed to mention credit unions as an alternative to big banks until other, more financially inclined bloggers stepped in.

That's hardly damning. Instead, what's most interesting here is not how much financial effect the campaign will have -- it won't -- but how Move Your Money is the perfect media phenomenon for our post-crash times, not only because it started on a Web site operated by a skillful political blogger, but because it emphasizes symbolism over reality and feeling over fact as it promises to help you "stick it" to big banks. In that way, it's representative of how so many issues of the financial crisis, from bailouts to bonuses to the bubble's culprits, were aired in the media over the past year or so, on both sides of the political aisle. Optics, not reality, ruled.

The most successful example of this is undoubtedly Matt Taibbi's high-pitched, invective-laced takedowns of Goldman, Sachs & Co. and of President Obama's economics team. Taibbi's factual errors were either overlooked, forgiven or deemed wholly beside the point by his followers, and anyone who attempted to point them out was swiftly ridiculed as a Wall Street or Obama apologist. Goldman isn't really a giant vampire squid from hell. But forget facts; that symbol isn't going away anytime soon. So it worked.

Huffington, for her part, hasn't branded any bank a blood-sucking sea creature, at least not yet. But she is having a small, if probably temporary success in turning the decision on where to bank into a moral choice, like being green or buying organic. It's so in tune with the Zeitgeist that you almost expect Oprah to invite some big bank CEOs on her show to admonish them for their sins. Then they can confess and apologize so the healing can begin.

Scoff if you like, but that isn't as far-fetched as it seems, given the mea culpa issued by former Time Warner Inc. chief Jerry Levin on CNBC for presiding over "the worst deal of the century." Never mind that his apology came a decade late; Levin wants "to hear publicly from Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, on and on" about the bubble-era mistakes they made. Perhaps they should take Levin up on that. After all, they won't have to divulge too many facts -- as long as the optics are good.

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Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.