Friday, March 13, 2009

Jon Stewart has done the impossible:

He has made me feel sympathy for Jim Cramer.

Not much sympathy, mind you. I think that Cramer is, by and large, a clown and if the country took his investment advice we'd be a banana republic right about now. (I was, frankly, knocked for a loop when I found out that Cramer had graduated with honors from Harvard.) But I have to admit, I thought Stewart was a bit of a bully when he interviewed Cramer on last night's Daily Show.

Let me also throw in a few caveats.

Caveat #1: Stewart's original piece on CNBC was, by and large, pretty fucking genius.

If you haven't seen it, it's worth checking out here.

I got into a huge argument about this the other night with a friend of mine who was sticking up for CNBC (which, I admit, I do not watch much of) and saying that by cherry picking individual things that CNBC has gotten wrong Stewart was being hugely unfair; they have interviewed short sellers as well as bulls over the last few years, and there was plenty of dissenting opinion about the boundlessness of the market that they featured. I'll have to take his word for that -- and he has a point.

But the reason Stewart's original piece was so good was not necessarily by cherry picking "gotcha" moments -- it was a larger indictment. The truth is, financial journalism has failed miserably over the last decade in anticipating this economic collapse. (In its way, it's about as big a failure as the political media's failure to verify the claims the Bush administration was making in its march to war.)

There were sober voices out there who were warning about over-leveraged banks; CDOs; lack of subprime standards; etc. and they could be found in their own quiet corners of the media. But they rarely appeared on Larry Kudlow or Jim Cramer -- or were given as great a megaphone.

Caveat #2: The fact that financial journalists just repeat what they are told by CEOs is not just maddening -- it's puzzling too. (And this, I think, is Stewart's larger point.)

Look, I don't work in TV. I have no idea what the protocol is. But I learned fairly early on in my career as a journalist that you have to assume that about 90 percent of what you're being told is bullshit. Sometimes people are total crooks and frauds (like "Sir" Allen Stanford who's interviewed at the end of the CNBC takedown Stewart did) and it's difficult to pin down somebody who's lying so shamelessly and consistently.

But I think the obsequiousness that leads reporters to huddle up to a CEO is part of the reason that crooks like Stanford and Bernie Madoff (and even not-out-and-out criminals, just morons like Dick Fuld) are allowed to go so far.

All that being said, Jim Cramer is pretty small beer in comparison to the larger problem.

And I didn't think it was quite unfair of Stewart to beat him up the way he did.

Cramer went on the show, and was never really given a chance to defend himself. "Roll clip," Stewart kept snarling -- before Cramer had a chance to make his point. (Interview wasn't even really the word for what this was. Diatribe by Jon Stewart was more like it.)

If you're going to humiliate the guy by showing all the mistakes he's made (over an extremely long amount of time), you have to give the guy a chance to defend himself. Stewart did not. He seemed like he was quaking in anger -- looking to eviscerate.

Look, I'm sure that CNBC and Jim Cramer have made a few boners over the years. But it was almost as if he was laying the entire financial collapse in Cramer's lap. That's more than a little unfair. Cramer was wrong -- but so was the vast majority of the establishment. When Stewart makes his critique on the establishment, I'm with him -- when he picks on individuals, I'm less with him.

Also, I think Jim Cramer pretty much was taking a bullet for Rick Santelli.

Santelli started the ridiculous "tea party" on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange, saying why should the rest of us pay for bad mortgages, which prompted Stewart's original segment on CNBC. Santelli's rant was immediately hailed by Republicans as some sort of populist rant -- but I thought it was mean spirited and absurd. (His primary complaint was that it promoted "bad behavior"... the same could be said about bailing out AIG or Citi group, but we're not going to let our entire economy go down the toilet, thank you very much.)

Santelli very much deserves to be grilled on his stupidity -- and he originally agreed to go on the Daily Show but weaseled out.

Cramer did not.

I guess Rick Santelli was, indeed, rewarded for "bad behavior."