It was one of the best television interviews I have ever seen. It was journalism at its finest, with a capital "J." A great deal of work went into preparing for the interview; the interviewer had a smart strategy and a clear point of view. The outcome was informative and enlightening. And, true to fast-paced world we live, the interview has gone viral. Edward R. Murrow would have been proud were he alive today.
And who was this impressive interviewer, this outstanding practitioner of journalism, this most revered member of the "fourth estate?" None other than Comedy Central's Jon Stewart. Call him "The Great Eviscerator!" His victims: the Goliath of business news, CNBC, and its mercurial host and commentator, Jim Cramer.
Jon Stewart raked CNBC over the coals, accusing them of under-reporting the events that led up to our current financial crisis. Worse, he accused them of knowingly misleading viewers about what was really going on, in effect, CNBC was a co-conspirator. Then Stewart played a three year old tape of Cramer advising hedge fund investors to manipulate the market for personal benefit.
At one point, Stewart charged, "This thing was 10 years in the making . .(the economic collapse) . . The idea that you could have on the guys from Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch and guys that had leveraged 35-1 and then blame mortgage holders, that's insane!"
Cramer responded, "I always wish that people would come in and swear themselves in before they come on the show...I had a lot of CEOs lie to me on the show...It's very painful...I don't have subpoena power."
In other words, Cramer was the victim!
But Stewart wasn't buying it, "You knew what the banks were doing and were touting it for months and months...The entire network was."
Cramer tried to name names, "But Dick Fuld, who ran Lehman Brothers, called me in - he called me in when the stock was at 40 -- because I was saying: 'look, I thought the stock was wrong, thought it was in the wrong place' - he brings me in and lies to me, lies to me, lies to me."
Mocking a shocked expression, Stewart said, "The CEO of a company lied to you?"
Cramer tried to be funny, "Shocking."
Then Stewart pulled out the knife and stuck it in his victim, "But isn't that financial reporting? What do you think is the role of CNBC?"
Cramer tried the "my-problem-is-I-am-too-nice" defense, "I didn't think that Bear Stearns would evaporate overnight...I knew the people who ran it...I thought they were honest...That was my mistake...I really did...I thought they were honest...Did I get taken in because I knew them before? Maybe, to some degree." Cramer continued, "It's difficult to have a reporter say: 'I just came from an interview with Hank Paulson and he lied his darn-fool head off.'..It's difficult...I think it challenges the boundaries."
Then Stewart dropped the hammer on Cramer, "But what is the responsibility of the people who cover Wall Street? . . . . I'm under the assumption, and maybe this is purely ridiculous, but I'm under the assumption that you don't just take their word at face value. That you actually then go around and try to figure it out (applause)."
In fairness, CNBC has some outstanding reporters, David Faber, Joe Kernen, Erin Brunett, Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and Maria Bartiromo, to name a few. Much of its live coverage is extremely good, as are its documentaries and specials. CNBC serves its high-income and highly educated audience well, and it is a huge cash cow for NBC and GE.
CNBC has no real competition, except for itself. When one of CNBC's reporters shouts from the floor that the government should not be bailing out the mortgages of "losers," or a couple of its reporters get into a highly personal and inappropriate on-air spat, or anchors resort to excessive yelling and constantly interrupt guests, the whole franchise is diminished. At its worst, CNBC is like those televised world wrestling matches.
But at its best, CNBC is a trustworthy and vital source for important financial and business information from around the world. Now more than ever, America needs CNBC to be the best it can be!
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