After days of mocking the financial cable channel CNBC for missing the implosion of the markets, satirist Jon Stewart turned dead serious while interviewing the channel's normally hyperkinetic stock picker Jim Cramer.
On Thursday's The Daily Show, Stewart argued CNBC had abdicated any credibility as a news outlet because its guests and analysts were largely cheerleaders for the financial markets.
"You know, look, we're both snake-oil salesmen to a certain extent," Stewart told Cramer. "But we do label the show as snake oil here. Isn't there a problem selling snake oil as vitamin tonic?"
It was a moment that recalled an episode in 2004 when Stewart went on CNN's ideological clash-fest Crossfire and denounced its destructive influence on political discourse. Jon Klein, the president of CNN's U.S. channel, cited Stewart's critiques several months later in canceling the show.
On Thursday, Stewart used excerpts of past interviews in which Cramer, a former hedge fund manager, talked about how to manipulate the markets. Stewart said the interviews showed that analysts, correspondents and others on CNBC knew the system's vulnerabilities, but weren't sharing that with viewers.
"Whose side are they on?" Stewart asked. "These guys at these companies were on a Sherman's march through their own companies, financed by our 401(k)s — and all the incentives of their companies were for short-term profits and they burned the house down with our money and walked away rich as hell.
"And you guys knew that that was going on."
'I'm Not Edward R. Murrow'
Cramer — who only a few days before Bear Stearns' collapse was touting the company — accepted many of Stewart's critiques and argued the network's reporters and analysts did their best to convey the news of the financial world; that financial structures were so complicated federal regulators and others did not understand their risks; and that they were lied to by corporate and financial executives.
In his own case, Cramer said, his show, Mad Money — on which he throws toy bulls and bears and sounds sirens and horns throughout — is not meant as a pure form of news.
"I'm not Eric Sevareid; I'm not Edward R. Murrow. I'm a guy trying to do an entertainment show about business, for people to watch," Cramer said. "It's difficult to have a reporter come from an interview with [former Treasury Secretary] Henry Paulson and say the guy lied his darn-fool head off. It challenges the boundaries."
Stewart replied: "I'm under the assumption you don't just take their word at face value."
Criticism Of CNBC
The blistering critique amounted to an attack on CNBC's journalism — something well beyond Cramer's purview. CNBC's chief public relations executive, Brian Steel, said the channel had no comment on the exchange.
But the channel allowed Cramer to become the public face of the debate after days of Stewart's criticism. The first was prompted by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli's rant against the big bailout for people about to default on mortgages. Santelli called them "losers," inspiring similar outrage among conservatives. And CNBC rode that wave of publicity for several days.
Stewart angrily pointed instead to the much larger bailouts for threatened financial and insurance institutions, which were run, Stewart said, seemingly for the benefit of their executives. Stewart's attacks accelerated when Santelli pulled out of a planned appearance on The Daily Show.
At times, Stewart crystallizes the frustration others have with the failings of the media with near-perfect pitch. It's one thing for media critics like me to pore through hundreds of articles to say the press didn't quite do its job as a watchdog of the nation's financial system. It's another for Stewart to cudgel a channel that has often championed the markets at a time when so many people have lost so much of their net value.
You can watch the entire exchange on NPR's pop-culture blog, Monkey See.