The $100 hamster wheel

By Felix Salmon
December 7, 2010
press release announcing "a delay in the issue date of the redesigned $100 note". Sometimes, there's a great little story hidden behind such news, and in this case it was CNBC's Eamon Javers who found it:

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Back on October 1, the Fed put out a short, bland press release announcing “a delay in the issue date of the redesigned $100 note.” Sometimes, there’s a great little story hidden behind such news, and in this case it was CNBC’s Eamon Javers who found it:

An official familiar with the situation told CNBC that 1.1 billion of the new bills have been printed, but they are unusable because of a creasing problem in which paper folds over during production, revealing a blank unlinked portion of the bill face.

A second person familiar with the situation said that at the height of the problem, as many as 30 percent of the bills rolling off the printing press included the flaw, leading to the production shut down.

The total face value of the unusable bills, $110 billion, represents more than ten percent of the entire supply of US currency on the planet, which a government source said is $930 billion in banknotes. For now, the unusable bills are stored in the vaults in “cash packs” of four bundles of 4,000 each, with each pack containing 16,000 bills.

Officials don’t know exactly what caused the problem. “There is something drastically wrong here,” a person familiar with the situation said. “The frustration level is off the charts.”

Javers had time to put together his story, and it shows. But according to some weird rule of journalism, the minute that CNBC ran the story, a full nine weeks after the original press release came out, everybody else felt that they had to have it too, and have it immediately.

And so it came to pass that Brady Dennis of the Washington Post started making phone calls to Treasury, Thomas Grillo of the Boston Herald called up the printers, the AP phoned the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Alex Branch of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram called the Bureau’s Engraving and Printing Western Currency Facility, all in the service of re-reporting hastily what CNBC had already reported carefully. Charles Riley of CNNMoney spoke only to “an official familiar with the situation,” while Dan Arnall of ABC spoke to “sources.” None of them, with the honorable exception of WaPo’s Dennis, credited CNBC; Krystle Gutierrez of Fox in Dallas even put an “originally reported by” slug on the bottom of her story, mentioning CNBC nowhere.

On top of that, lots of sites rewrote the CNBC story, giving CNBC credit but doing no new reporting themselves, and sometimes mangling the facts along the way.

$100 bills are sexy things: even the rich get a frisson from handling them. As such, they’re irresistible to news editors, especially on a very slow news day. But aren’t we meant to be entering the age of reporting a few stories well and then linking to the rest? Haven’t we always worked under the general principle of “faster than anyone better, better than anyone faster”? I can’t help but think that if news organizations put a tenth of the amount of effort into external linking that they do into re-reporting other people’s stories, we’d have a much more vibrant and useful news culture.

12 comments so far

Seems journalistic integrity is disintegrating no matter the subject matter or the source of a story. A Dallas barbecue blogger apparently got his barbecue reviews ripped by a local media source without any credit and he has decided to make the matters public. ld-journalists-credit-bloggers-for.html

Other outlets have appeared to sympathize with his frustration.

Posted by bernstein716 | Report as abusive

Well, Bernanke did assert the other day that he was doing QE2 without running the printing press…

And I am somewhat surprised that you still believe that journalism has any guiding principals. Someday I must dig up that Kierkegaard quote for you; something about he’d rather see his daughter work as a hooker than as a reporter.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

This surprises you? Just look at what the other two commenters said. Basically, we have a dumb press in this country.

Posted by PhilPerspective | Report as abusive

Soren Kierkegaard was rather famously Danish. Disdain of ‘the media’ is trans-national, and since he wrote it in the early-to-mid 1800′s, perhaps enduring as well.

Still, Felix, Diogenes has equally enduring fascination. Carry on.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Dare I mention the immortal Judith Griggs?

Posted by steve819 | Report as abusive

“Well, Bernanke did assert the other day that he was doing QE2 without running the printing press…”

@ARJTurgot2 – good one! So that’s why his lips didn’t quiver when he said that.

When someone does your footwork or you have a source, you better give them credit due.

@ARJTurgot2 – there are guiding principals and when they aren’t followed, readers and the editors (and eventually publishers and owners) have to hold them accountable. Ethics and principals die only if we let them pass.

@steve819, thanks for mentioning that story. The backlash from readers and supporters surely should took a toll! agazine-ignites-copyright-firestorm

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

Journalism is on its death knell since the inception and popularity of news agregators, which are now a major source of news for many people.

Posted by Mike.Gayner | Report as abusive

Great analysis of the situation – I don’t really care about the printing press mistake – but I am concerned about one more example of the deterioration of the press’ standards.

The media have to realize that they can get paid for “access”, “data”, or “intelligent analysis” from consumers of media. As an educated consumer, I can get generic “access” to current events from numerous sources – it has little value (unless it is a niche topic). Similarly, I can get general “data” numerous ways – simply scanning headlines of a website RSS feed like Reuters, for example.

The TREMENDOUS value is from the “intelligent analysis”, which makes me think about the situation, and (hopefully) I learn something about the topic that I did not know before. This is why I spend 90% of my media consumption time on my RSS reader of blog sites from the 20-30 bloggers that make me think. In turn, I may follow a blogger cited by a blogger I respect, and thus my RSS feed reader grows.

Why can’t the media go back to “intelligent analysis” and win consumers like me back? Do they not realize this is why their business model is failing? Google et al have made “access” and “data” a commodity – but play no role in “intelligent analysis” – that requires skilled reporters and thinkers.

Posted by MilesDavis | Report as abusive

Edit: just noticed Mike.Gayner’s comment – in a long-winded manner I restated (or proved) his point. There’s at least one other consumer out there like me.

Posted by MilesDavis | Report as abusive

I think I’ve figured out why “journalists” are respected somewhat less than congressmen and pedophiles.

Posted by Acharn | Report as abusive

What are these bills actually used for? I don’t believe that $100s actually make up the percentage of cash in circulation that is implied (actual circulation in the US would be mostly $20s and $1s). I suspect that the actual function of that many $100s is to sit in vaults – or are they used in other countries?

Posted by skeptonomist | Report as abusive

Yes, they’re used in other countries. The US gets enormous amounts of seignorage from them — although that number’s falling now that interest rates are so low.

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive
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