March 16, 2009
Jon Stewart takes on Jim Cramer, CNBC, and the financial news industry
Most people would have heard by now of the Daily Show-Jim Cramer face-off, but I want to comment on it anyway.
It all started when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli tried to fan outrage against Obama's plan to rescue some homeowners from their current situation. Santelli went on the floor of the stock exchange and riled up the traders there by implying that their money was being used to bail out reckless homebuyers.
Stewart made fun of this cheap populism by running clip after clip of CNBC reporters touting the virtues of one company after another just before those companies went belly up. Several of those clips featured Jim Cramer, who has a daily show on the CNBC network.
In response, Cramer than went on a series of shows on CNBC and their affiliates MSNBC and NBC where the friendly hosts gave him a chance to dismiss Stewart's criticisms as those of an ignorant comedian who did not understand the complexities of the market and whose whole shtick was to run clips out of context and make faces.
When Santelli backed out of a promise to appear on his show, Stewart then invited Cramer to debate the issue. The result last Thursday was a humiliating experience for Cramer, who had no answer as Stewart grilled him like a prosecutor, showing clip after clip exposing the way that Cramer and his fellow financial reporters essentially knew all the time exactly all the financial games that were being played with ordinary people's money, while they now try to act like innocents taken by surprise at the collapse of that shell game. It seemed to me like at some moments Cramer was about to burst into tears.
In the process, it became clear that Stewart understood perfectly well how the markets operated and the complicity of the media in hiding the impending collapse. As I watched the three-parts of the unedited interview, two things struck me.
One was that this was another example of the problem of access journalism. All these financial reporters desperately want high-profile people like CEOs of the big companies to come on their shows. They think that being a good reporter is getting access to people, with exclusive interviews or off-the-record briefings, instead of doing the hard work of reading financial reports and analyzing the data. This means that they simply let their interviewees say whatever they want and relay it to the public. They never call them out if they lie, because if they did that then those people and their friends would never talk to them again. In fact, our mainstream media news reporters actually recoil from the very idea that they should point out when the people they interview lie to them and the public. So these shows have become merely vehicles for pure propaganda put out by business and political leaders.
The second issue is related to the first. Stewart asks Cramer the important question, which was not answered, as to which group these shows are supposed to serve, the public or business. The shows advertise themselves as serving viewers, trying to give them the information to invest wisely. But Stewart questions that, saying that the shows are really serving the interests of the companies they talk about, by helping them market themselves as being better than they are.
Although we are asked to think of the news as the 'product' and the viewers/listeners as the targeted audience that this product is delivered to, that is not the case. The workings of the current media system makes much more sense if we realize that we, the viewers/listeners, are the product that is delivered to the real audience, the corporate underwriters of these shows. The 'news' is simply the lure to hook us, which is why the line between news and entertainment has become so blurry. The goal of TV news shows is not to create an informed public, it is to deliver a specific demographic to their corporate sponsors.
Here are the three parts of the Stewart –Cramer exchange, all of which are well worth watching.
The kind of sharp questioning that Cramer could not deal with is not because Stewart is smarter but because he does his homework and, more importantly, does not need access to famous people to do his stuff. This is why he can say what he really thinks and ask these kinds of questions. It does not matter to him if Cramer never appears on his show again or if Rick Santelli chickens out and backs out of appearing because of the sharp questioning he will receive. The Daily Show does not need them because they use publicly available material for their humor.
But the so-called 'real' news people not only desperately want to interview famous people, one gets the nauseating sense that they want to be thought of as their friends, and that they would be thrilled to be asked to play golf with them and invited to their country clubs or fly with them on their private jets. That is the basic problem. One sees this instinctive mentality with Cramer as he tries to ingratiate himself to Stewart.
True reporters like the legendary I. F. Stone studiously avoided any personal contact with the people they were covering because this gave them total freedom to call it like they saw it, irrespective of whether it offended them. This independence gave them more power as reporters, not less.
The other lesson to be taken from the Stewart-CNBC episode is that one should not mess with Jon Stewart. Because, like I. F. Stone, he does not need your approval to do his work, he can hit you hard.
POST SCRIPT: Self-parody
The Daily Show introduction to the Cramer interview pokes fun at the controversy itself.