Shill the messenger

Last week, Jon Stewart, television comedian somehow in charge of all responsible TV media criticism, interviewed a TV financial journalist, Jim Cramer, who defended his well documented wrongness by claiming merely to be an entertainer who was "lied to" (rather than a trusted financial guru and television journalist).  It was an embarrassing performance for Cramer, who only made himself looking even worse when he spoke up in his own defense–calling Stewart a comedian, and claiming to have been taken out of context.  That only invited more context.  Leave it to Richard Cohen, Washington Post liberal columnist, to misunderstand the whole proceeding.

He writes,    

The acclaim visited on Stewart for spanking Cramer tells you something. In the first place — and by way of a minor concession — he's got a small point. CNBC has often been a cheerleader for the zeitgeist — up when the market's up, down when it's down. This is true of the business media in general.

But the role that Cramer and other financial journalists played was incidental. There was not much they could do, anyway. They do not have subpoena power. They cannot barge into AIG and demand to see the books, and even if they could, they would not have known what they were looking at. The financial instruments that Wall Street firms were both peddling and buying are the functional equivalent of particle physics. To this day, no one knows their true worth.

It does not take cable TV to make a bubble. CNBC played no role in the Tulip Bubble that peaked, as I recall, in 1637, or in the Great Depression of 1929-41. It is the zeitgeist that does this — the psychological version of inertia: the belief that what's happening will continue to happen.

My informal sense of Stewart's position is that Cramer has represented himself and has been represented as some kind of god-like financial guru (cf. "In Cramer We Trust").  Yet, as Cohen concedes, Cramer didn't know what he was talking about.  That's Stewart's point.  You can see the video here.

I think it's obvious that Stewart is not guilty of the very strong claim Cohen seems to be attributing to him.  So this seems to be a fairly straightforward straw man.

4 thoughts on “Shill the messenger”

  1. One thing that people miss in all this, and a point that Stewart has futilely been trying to make, is that this isn’t about Cramer, or any particular person at CNBC. It’s about responsible journalism, and the lack thereof in places like CNBC, CNN, FOX, etc. Stewart is just calling the media in general out on their bullshit.

    Of course CNBC didnt see it coming. They don’t think it’s their job to see it coming. They serve as the dutiful mouthpiece for corporate press releases, and the first link in the rumor mill that business relies on for driving up stock prices. Few in the media who have discussed this story have commented on the clips Stewart used of Cramer in his days as a hedge fund manager, where he is giving advice on how to deceive investors by starting strategic rumors. What’s that Marx quote that’s been thrown around a lot lately? “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Cramer’s show is, literally, a farce.

    Now, no one is suggesting, as Cohen thinks Stewart was, that CNBC should have predicted this entire economic mess we’re in. But, maybe they should have seen it coming. At the very least, they should have been critical of their sources. That would be responsible journalism.

    There are very few media outlets remaining that properly fulfill their roll as defenders of the public interest. Stewart and the Daily Show shouldn’t be one of them, and that’s Stewart’s point.

  2. Did you mean to exclude, e.g., Chomsky, with that “responsible” qualifier?

    I’d say that it’s not the case that Jon Stewart is “somehow in charge of all responsible TV media criticism.” Yet, actuality may be no less ironic: perhaps Stewart has found the only medium (comedy) which maintains credibility while offering such criticism.

  3. I wasn’t being serious.


    I actually meant, come to think of it, media criticism on TV. The only other one I can think of is Howard Kurtz’s Sunday morning program, which, to its great discredit, frequently features Jonah Goldberg, among other luminaries.

  4. I think the argument that Jem formulates for Stewart can be made more forcefully. There have been plenty of people pointing to the dangers of securitization and over leveraging.

    To name a few that I read over the last decade.

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