Post Mortem on the Stewart vs. CNBC Furor

The exchange between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer ended last Thursday night with an appearance by Cramer on "The Daily Show" that was fascinating (though squirm-inducing). Stewart was as well prepared for the interview as any prosecutor, with video clips assembled to refute every excuse that Cramer might offer, turning an interview that initially looked like it might be a non-event into a relentless cross-examination that left Cramer deflated and obviously just hoping that it would all be over soon.  I have often faulted Stewart for being too soft on his guests, so this was an especially pleasant surprise.

The substance of Stewart's case against CNBC was that the network and its anchors consistently present themselves as being some combination of journalists and financial experts, when in fact they are neither. (He also reminded Cramer that CNBC was the subject of his critique, with Cramer only being one part of the parade of clowns.) They are, instead, entertainers who happily sucked up to the titans of finance and industry, amplifying nonsense in a way that harmed anyone who took the network's claims of expertise seriously. That is why Stewart's retort that "[t]here's a market for cocaine and hookers" was so perfect, putting Cramer's defense that CNBC was just exploiting a market niche in perspective. The point of Stewart's complaint, in other words, was that CNBC and Cramer are guilty of misrepresenting themselves as reliable guides to finance when in fact they are simply charlatans. When CNBC anchors ask ponzi-scheme operators questions like: "What's it like to be a billionaire?" their journalistic credibility is difficult to take seriously.

Speaking of journalistic sloppiness (or worse), the New York Times's review of Cramer's appearance on The Daily Show, by their TV critic Alessandra Stanley, was an inadvertent demonstration of how badly a supposed journalist can miss the point. "Mr. Stewart treated his guest like a C.E.O. subpoenaed to testify before Congress: his point was not to hear Mr. Cramer out, but to act out a cathartic ritual of indignation and castigation." Actually, Stewart listened carefully to Cramer's explanations. He then demonstrated when those explanations did not add up -- which just happened to be the case for every answer that Cramer offered, making Stewart's preparation for the interview all the more impressive as Cramer veered all over the map, only to find that Stewart was ready with evidence to refute each of Cramer's claims. If that level of preparedness is part of a "messianic streak," as Stanley suggested sneeringly about Stewart, then we need more messiahs. More to the point, being prepared for an interview and asking tough follow-up questions is now something that a New York Times columnist ridicules. No wonder so many people say that they get their news from "The Daily Show"!

All of which is very important but misses the bigger point. Stewart never claimed to be doing anything more than holding up CNBC to ridicule for its failure to live up to its own billing. The network rode a market bubble to high ratings, offering what turned out to be ruinous advice to its viewers and arguably making the whole thing worse than it otherwise might have been. Bubbles need hot air, and CNBC provided plenty of it. This exchange was never, however, about what brought the bubble into existence in the first place or why it was not prevented by regulators. On that score, Stewart showed that his insights on journalism do not extend to finance and economics.

The whole brouhaha began, you might recall, when "The Daily Show" had booked CNBC's Rick Santelli (of the infamous "subsidizing the mortgages of losers" rant) for an interview on the show. As Stewart later explained it, he and his staff prepared their first expose of CNBC to show to Santelli as part of an effort to suggest where the "losers" might have been getting their disastrous financial advice. When Santelli canceled his appearance, Stewart showed the expose anyway. What almost no one noticed, however, is that the replacement guest that night was Joe Nocera, a business columnist for the New York Times. That interview was a non-event, but it shows just how confused the public discussion of the financial crisis has become.

Shortly before his appearance on The Daily Show, Nocera wrote a column purporting to explain the cause of the problem with the insurance giant AIG. Stewart started the interview by telling Nocera that, because of Nocera's column, he now finally understood what had gone wrong in the financial markets. Short explanation: AIG had engaged in a "scam." In my next blog post on Thursday morning, I will explain why Nocera's explanation makes no sense and how it helps to fan the flames of populist outrage that are beginning to rage out of control. Stay tuned.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan