December 28, 2012
Timothy Geithner
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (Reuters)

CNBC’s Rick Santelli slipped into Rick Santelli shtick during a Thursday discussion on the likelihood that the United States would fall off the “fiscal cliff.” Santelli screamed these words:

The Fed doesn’t have a clue. Neither does the president. Neither does Congress. … Neither does Tim Geithner. He gives a speech about hitting the debt ceiling. I’d like to see if he could even count to a million, much less 16.4 trillion!

The riff reflected what CNN.com calls the “diminished hopes for a substantial agreement in Washington.” Looks as if Washington isn’t rising above its partisan differences, despite constant urging from CNBC to do so.

“Rise Above” is the branding campaign that CNBC has attached to its extensive coverage of the fiscal-cliff discussions. For nearly two months, the “Rise Above” logo, complete with the U.S. flag, has graced the CNBC screen during the (often contentious) chats on this topic. The idea for the slogan arose from a successful CNBC segment. On Oct. 11, the network’s Steve Liesman gathered Goldman Sachs Chairman & CEO Lloyd Blankfein with Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, they of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. They talked budgets and debt. “The reaction to the interview from viewers was really strong, and all of us watching were transfixed that these guys from different backgrounds had come together,” says Nikhil Deogun, managing editor of CNBC TV.

As Washington inches closer and closer to “sinking below,” the “Rise Above” crew at CNBC has cranked up the urgency. Network mainstay Maria Bartiromo opened a brief discussion last Thursday with Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) by asking, “Are you guys incompetent, or what?” After some back and forth, Bartiromo rat-a-tat-tatted Cardin, asking him whether he was prepared to end deductions for charitable contributions (no); for mortgage deduction (no answer); for the “carried-interest loophole.” Before ending the interview, Bartiromo said, “It’s your way or the highway. Raise the rates on the rich — no other way.” Good television — almost as good as when Fox News’s Neil Cavuto ended an interview with Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) after she declined to identify what government programs she would agree to cut.

One liability of “Rise Above” is that it casts CNBC in an activist light, albeit in a middle-of-the-road fashion. “I don’t think it’s great,” says an occasional CNBC commentator. “It’s fine if you’re a think tank or a not-for-profit urging Congress to come to a particular solution. … It’s kind of a fine line because you’re not advocating a particular outcome.”

Whatever the small-bore journo-ethics considerations, “Rise Above” makes tons of sense from a news-marketing perspective. All you need to do is take a look at the polling. Gallup reported over the summer that 10 percent of Americans approved of the work Congress was doing. That leaves a meaty 90 percent for news programs that’ll reliably bash all those incompetent people in Washington, which is what CNBC’s cliff coverage boils down to these days. Just a few weeks into its campaign for bipartisan sanity, CNBC recorded 20,000 requests for “Rise Above” pins, according to Deogun.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.