STAR TANNERY, Virginia — I would be underestimating to say 50 percent of what is being passed off as "news coverage" on television is actually mere speculation and interpretation. Most of us accept this as the status quo and take on the responsibility of separating the wheat from the opinionated chaff, particularly when it comes to shows geared around a specific personality and dealing with mercurial subject matter.
Take CNBC's Mad Money and stock prognosticator Jim Cramer, who came under fire by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart for misleading the public not only about the status of Wall Street Titans like Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, but also the economy in general. Last week Stewart went head to head with Cramer - well, it was more like heads to head, once you count the boisterous, Stewart-idolizing audience.
How Stewart is still able to get anyone who disagrees with him to appear on his show is beyond me. It's hardly a fair fight, with his minions cheering down any rebuttals with sheer noise.
The Cramer interview went much the same way as most of Stewart's antagonistic discussions. Rather than a light-hearted exchange over their perceived (read, "spun") feud, Stewart took Cramer to task over everything from his inability to detect when CEOs were lying to Mad Money's hyperactive format. This was not comedy; it was a news interview.
To his credit, Cramer never alluded to the disclaimer that runs after every installment of Mad Money stating that the show is for entertainment purposes only. This would not be so ironic were it not for the fact that Stewart, when coming up against his own critics, has consistently hidden behind the excuse that he is not, in fact a journalist - he is a comedian, he says, and his show is not a news show, it's strictly entertainment (no such disclaimer appears in his credits). This exempts his sloppy journalism from being judged harshly.
The March 12 show was not entertainment, so much as a cringe-fest every time Cramer tried to make nice with Stewart and his screaming worshippers. He was badly outnumbered and ill-prepared for such an intense interview.
Stewart's basic gripe is that the "financial experts" at CNBC and elsewhere - which, we were told, Cramer was representing - were unable to predict the current financial situation and are, at this point, unable to pinpoint what caused it.
Cramer could have pointed out that, if Stewart disagreed with his treatment of financial news, he was welcome to change the channel. It's not Cramer's or CNBC's job to oversee Wall Street. It is their job, basically, to make money for its parent company General Electric. They do that by some reporting and also by acting as financial pundits.
Is there anyone who believes any pundit - financial or political - is right all the time?
Perhaps Stewart has CNBC confused with the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), who really had the job of overseeing wacky Wall Street hijinks. It was the SEC that ignored Harry Markopolas for eight years when he tried to alert authorities that former NASDAQ chairman Bernie Madoff was running a $50 billion ponzi scheme.
How about going after the CEOs of all the major builders who raped the housing market then buried themselves beneath layers of subsidiaries when it came time to pay the thousands of subcontractors.
There is any number of people to hold accountable. While we're at it, we need to berate every single adult in the country for our focus on making money we haven't worked for so we can retire even before sprouting a single gray hair. Or how about our national obsession with more house than we can fill, more food than we can eat, more cars than we can drive and more clothes than we can wear; and, better yet, how about going after the advertisers that sell us on all that stuff and the television shows that convince us we deserve it?
How about blaming our never-ending quest to get something for nothing - or more something for nothing? Bernie Madoff couldn't have done what he did without investors who wanted to make more money than they could with an FDIC-secured investment or even with a conventional investment firm.
Cramer is no better or no worse than any other financial "expert." Unfortunately, he cowered and indulged Stewart's journalist aspirations (that he claims he doesn't have); in short, he caved.
So it's damage control at Mad Money, where this week the focus has been on restoring Cramer's credibility.
Meanwhile, next week I look for Stewart to take The Weather Channel to task for its unreliable weather predictions.
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