Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jon Stewart: All Kidding Aside

Jon Stewart (right) and Jim Cramer, The Daily Show, March 12, 2009

Fight of the Century. Comedy Central vs. CNBC. In one corner, Jon Stewart, court jester extraordinaire and master of "fake news;" in the other, Jim Cramer of the adolescent voice, purveyor of fake investment advice.

Stewart takes off his comedy gloves and delivers a series of left jabs as Cramer retreats to the ropes, murmuring apologies. Stewart pulls him to his feet and delivers a hay-maker, forcing Cramer to view a clip of himself explaining to an interviewer some of the tricks he had used to deceive investors back in his trading days.
Bewildered, Cramer staggers from the set. Stewart never cracks a smile. The audience that had come for comedy witnessed bloodsport instead.

It is telling that it was a comedian who focused populist ire against the financial Masters of the Universe and their apologists at CNBC. By the time word of AIG bonuses had leaked out two days later, public rage was in full boil. Congress, which had voted for restrictions on executive pay before they voted against them, scrambled for the low ground. And President Obama, who had spent two months trying to divert public attention from the injustice of the Wall Street bailouts toward the necessity of solving the financial crisis, finally had to begin to address the ways and means of punishing the whinging, unrepentant culprits.

One may well ask what has happened to the Fourth Estate when the most trenchant journalism is left for television comedians to deliver. As mass media has become big business has it lost its taste for controversy?

In his book The Big Con, Jonathan Chait devotes a chapter to "Media: The Dog That Didn't Watch." He laments that mainstream journalists now seem compelled to present at least two sides of every argument, no matter how patently ridiculous the argument may be on one side or the other. Ironically, his point is made by Jim Lehrer, whose Newshour on PBS routinely offers up some of the best reporting on television.
When asked how he treats official statements that are "blatantly untrue," Lehrer responded in the relativistic style that has become the hallmark of mainstream media:

There's always a germ of truth in just about anything...My part of journalism is to present what various people say about it the best we can find out [by] reporting and let others--meaning commentators, readers, viewers, bloggers or whatever...I'm not in the judgment part of journalism. I'm in the reporting part of journalism."

However harsh his delivery, Jon Stewart's message to CNBC and to journalists in general is that reporting goes beyond stenography; that the editorial page is not the exclusive realm of editorial judgment. Professional journalists and media that purport to be something more than publicists for special interests are at least expected to filter the nonsense before they file their reports. By transcending his comedic format to deliver a stinging rebuke, Stewart made the issue personal and identified himself with his outraged viewers. He reminded us that journalism has consequences. Failure to speak truth to power has its cost too.

See The Big Con: the True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics, by Jonathon Chait (Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2007).

For our previous posts on the financial crisis, see US Economy and the Bailout.

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