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No Laughing Matter

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009 10:07 AM

If you think Jon Stewart is merely funny, you're missing the point.

The Comedy Central guy is one of the sharpest media critics around.

I know he feels strongly about the shortcomings of the news business -- and who doesn't? -- because I've interviewed him about it, and the one time I was on the "Daily Show," he carried on at some length, long past the allotted time for our discussion. Only the studio audience got to see that part.

Thanks to his young army of TiVo sleuths, Stewart comes up with tape that either a) makes journalists look slightly ridiculous, or b) shows that they don't know what the hell they're talking about.

He does this to politicians as well, of course. And the show is shaped by his opinions. Jon was no fan of Bush or the war in what he calls Mess O' Potamia.

I argue in my book "Reality Show" that even though Stewart (and Stephen Colbert) do fake news, they are having an undeniable impact on real news. And not just because Brian Williams is a frequent "Daily" guest.

Plenty of news shows now use quick-cut editing to show pols contradicting themselves or copying others or sticking to rigid talking points. They are straining to be hip, but they also know what's effective. "NBC Nightly News" and the "CBS Evening News" have also played clips from Stewart's program.

Stewart turned his fire on CNBC last week, running eight minutes on various anchors, pundits and guests assuring the world that, for instance, Bear Stearns was solvent, Lehman Brothers wasn't in trouble, and Merrill Lynch had plenty of capital. All that and more turned out to be devastatingly wrong. (The video assault was triggered when Rick Santelli, he of the Chicago rant, canceled a planned appearance.)

I have a lot of respect for CNBC's top journalists. And you could deliver a similar indictment of financial journalists overall -- that with some exceptions, they operated on the assumption that the giant banks and mega-corporations were on sound footing and whatever risks they faced were manageable. The most egregious failure, in my view, was failing to fully report on the drastic cutbacks in federal regulation -- the SEC's shift to virtual voluntarism and the rise of a shadow banking system that sliced and diced and swapped paper beyond the reach of the authorities.

Too many of CNBC's guests are fund managers with an interest in talking up stocks and analysts whose investment houses do business with corporate America. But don't take my word for it; check out the video.

At the Philly Daily News, Will Bunch essentially asks why journalists don't have the same kind of guts:

"The Stewart piece . . . got the kind of eyeballs that most newsrooms would kill for in this digital age -- planted atop many, many major political, media and business Web sites -- and the kind of water-cooler chatter that journalists would crave in any age. In a time when newspapers are flat-out dying if not dealing with bankruptcy or massive job losses, while other types of news orgs aren't faring much better, the journalistic success of a comedy show rant shouldn't be viewed as a stick in the eye -- but a teachable moment. Why be a curmudgeon about kids today getting all their news from a comedy show, when it's not really that hard to join Stewart in his own idol-smashing game.

"Here's how:

"1) Great research trumps good access to the powerful: The Stewart piece makes this controversial but critical point in two different ways. For one thing, the story shows how access to the nation's most powerful CEOs -- supposedly the big advantage of a journalistic enterprise like CNBC -- isn't worth a warm bucket of spit when it results in slo-pitch softball questions, for fear of offending the rich and powerful . . .

"Jon Stewart's act of journalism -- reported, of course, by his ace team of writers -- worked because there were no interviews at all. It all hung instead on meticulous research, dredging up lethal quips of CNBC's stock pumping hosts to hang them with their own undeniable words -- Jim Cramer's 'buy buy buy' when the Dow was roughly double what it is today, his touting of Bear Stearns' and Bank of America's doomed stocks. The kind of research that's so hard for most newspapers to do anymore, with downsized staffs and ever-looming deadlines, but which . . . so often belies the spin from our 'accessible' sources.

"2) The American public is mad as hell right now, so why isn't the mainstream media? Balanced reporting is important, but a balanced, modulated tone of voice? Not now, not when millions are hurting from lost jobs and under-water mortgages, and many millions more are living in fear of the same fate . . .

"3) Tear down this wall . . . of pretending that the media itself isn't a major player in American society, and isn't a factor in most big stories. Sure, there were greedy bankers and their pocketed politicians working in unintended tandem to take the Dow from 14,000 down to 6,600, but these popular TV pundits were there every step of the way, as 'The Daily Show' revealed, and their contribution was consequential."

No question about that. The media played a key role in the dot-com bubble of the '90s and the housing bubble this decade.

At the Big Money, Dan Mitchell says journalists can't go the "Daily" route:

"Jon Stewart's hilarious and devastating attack on CNBC Wednesday night has brought yet another round of protestations along the lines of: 'Why don't the mainstream media do this kind of thing? Why is it left to comedians?'

"This shows an ignorance of both journalism and comedy. First of all, Stewart isn't so much a comedian as he is a satirist. And it's always been the job of satirists to make fun of the culture and public affairs. Behind the jabs, there are serious points being made. That's the purpose of satire.

"And while journalists could surely stand to (judiciously) add more humor to their presentation of the news, that's far from their first job. And as much as ideologues of various stripes would like to believe otherwise, it also isn't their first job to skewer anything, though there should be more of that, too (judiciously applied.) Their first job is to present the facts -- fairly. And there have been plenty of media examinations of CNBC, its shallow cheerleading, and its boneheaded presentation . . .

"If you watch Stewart's attack carefully, you might notice something: It was completely unfair. Not inaccurate, but unfair. Stewart did a bunch of things that no journalist could, or should, ever get away with. He showed ultra-short clips of anchors and reporters saying things that, by themselves, sounded really stupid but, in context, may not have been quite as dumb as they seemed (though some surely were). And he included clips of interviewees saying dumb things, something for which CNBC bears no blame (unless they went totally unchallenged, which I assume in some cases they did).

"This is all fine -- for a satirist. The overall vibe of CNBC -- with its 'money honeys,' Jim Cramer's inane frothing, and the lunkheaded fratboys on Fast Money treating economic news like a football game -- is stupid. So showing clips that make the network look stupid works just fine -- for a satirist.

"But not for a journalist."

Marketwatch's Jon Friedman adds his voice to the CNBC critics:

"The network's mistaken priorities have made it an easy target for the incisive Stewart. CNBC can look like a television outfit that values the presentation of news mainly as entertainment. CNBC appears to use ESPN's 'SportsCenter' show as a model for its own 'Squawk Box,' in which people sit around the shoot the bull on the headlines of the day.

"CNBC loses sight of the idea that the public takes investing, and the economy, much more seriously than sports fans debate baseball or football headlines. A recession can make investors snap to attention real fast. . . .

"CNBC has much to answer for and be embarrassed about. The network has gone overboard in its effort to dumb down business news for the masses."

To which I'd note: Hey, it's television. You've got to get people in the tent. That doesn't mean it has to be way oversimplified, but shooting the bull can have some value.

Meanwhile, The Deal rejects the notion that the business press failed:

"What are we really talking about when we say that financial journalism utterly failed? Better yet, whom are we talking about? Are we blaming local newspapers; big papers like The New York Times, the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal; the news magazines; CNBC and Fox; the B2Bs; the wires; the personal finance press; the blogosphere; the schools of journalism?

"The fact is, someone, somewhere covered many aspects of this disaster. Local papers in California and Florida wrote about local real estate bubbles; and the personal finance media -- not usually known for stepping out of the way of a boom -- warned about price bubbles. The Economist described Goldman, Sachs & Co. and other Wall Street firms as overleveraged hedge funds years ago. BusinessWeek screamed about private equity. A number of B2Bs, the WSJ and New York Times wrote about concerns over credit default swaps. Barron's famously took a shot at Bernie Madoff. Here at The Deal we worried about low bankruptcy rates, covenant-lite financing and evanescent liquidity. James Grant regularly warned about nearly everything. Even the Columbia Journalism Review's Audit, which loves to consign financial journalists to a kind of populist hell, admits that a few early stories were written about subprime, but then rails that none of the big boys followed up."

But when the boys, big or little, wrote about credit default swaps, or risky loans, or Fannie and Freddie, how many of those stories made the front page? How many made it onto network television? It was a classic failure to connect the dots.

NPR's David Folkenflik makes a similar point after examining past financial reporting:

"I found the weight of coverage fixated on executive suite intrigue and outsize corporate personalities, especially in the magazines' cover stories. In addition, news outlets, like the rest of the country, often focused on the vagaries of the stock market, as hedge funds and retirement funds seemed to soar in unison. Dissonant voices about the vulnerabilities of the system were heard on CNBC and in print, but they were largely swept aside as part of a greater conversation about how to keep investing."

Jim Cramer responds to his critics:

"Take Frank Rich and Jon Stewart. Both seize on the urban legend that I recommended Bear Stearns the week before it collapsed, even though I was saying that I thought it could be worthless as soon as the following week. I did tell an emailer that his deposit in his account at Bear Stearns was safe, but through a clever sound bite, Stewart, and subsequently Rich -- neither of whom have bothered to listen to the context of the pulled quote -- pass off the notion of account safety as an out-and-out buy recommendation. The absurdity astounds me."

As I've asked before: How much blame can be assigned to the new president? Two views, starting with National Review's Jim Geraghty:

"The markets dislike many things, but high on the list is uncertainty. I continue the drumbeat on Obama's 'expiration dates,' but the record is accumulating that what the Obama administration says one day may not be policy the next day. Will the administration really be lending $1 trillion to hedge funds and private-equity firms? Will the automakers get another bailout, or will one or more of the Big Three be left to bankruptcy? Is the mortgage assistance really going to go to second homes and investment properties after earlier pledges that it wouldn't? Is nationalization of the banks coming down the pike, or will the current denials hold?

"On those issues and others, investors really don't know what kind of decisions will be coming from this administration in the coming year.

"The market's plunge since he took office is not all Obama's fault, but he's earned his share.

"To refresh, on Election Day, 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 9,625. On Inauguration Day 2009, the DJIA closed at 7,949.09. Today the Dow is 6547.05."

Former Labor secretary Robert Reich, in Salon:

"Is Obama responsible for the meltdown of the Dow? The consistently wrongheaded Wall Street Journal's editorial page says so, as does Republican Fox News, CNN's reliably demagogic Lou Dobbs, and now CNBC (where, full disclosure, I frequently appear as a token liberal). CNBC's Jim Cramer, who bloviates nightly about stock picks, says Obama is pushing a 'radical agenda' that's destroying investors' wealth. My friend Larry Kudlow, who rants nightly about nearly everything, says Obama is destroying capitalism. CNBC reporter Rick Santelli's ballistic nonsense about Obama's mortgage plan made him a pop-populist icon for a week or so.

"The argument that Obama is somehow responsible for the collapse of Wall Street is absurd. First, every major policy that led to this collapse occurred under George W.'s watch (or, more accurately, his failure to watch). The housing and financial bubbles were created under Bush and exploded under Bush. The stock market began to collapse under Bush.

"Second, it's inevitable that stocks, led by the bloated financial sector, would lose their remaining hot air as the new administration begins 'stress-testing' the big banks, many of which are technically insolvent . . .

"Finally, none of the financial wizards who are now charging Obama with leading America into the abyss have offered an alternative plan for getting us out of the mess that, not incidentally, many of these same wizards happily led us into."

Kudos to Sheryl Gay Stolberg for this NYT story:

"President Obama's directive on Monday to 'guarantee scientific integrity' in federal policy making could have a far-reaching impact, affecting issues as varied as climate change, national security, protection of endangered species and children's health.

"But it will not divorce science from politics, or strip ideology from presidential decisions."

I think Obama's move more accurately reflects a consensus in the country, and certainly among scientists, than the Bush ban. But some in the media got carried away in saying this removes politics from the realm of science. Obama's is ultimately a political decision, just as his predecessor's was.

Finally, remember how Rod Blagojevich tried to pressure the Chicago Tribune to fire a couple of editorial writers in exchange for helping with the parent company selling the Cubs? Now we have the e-mails from the Trib's business consultant, Marc Ganis, and top Blagojevich aide John Harris:

"In an exchange of e-mails between Ganis and Harris on the day prior to the arrests of the governor and his chief of staff, Ganis provided Harris with a copy of a news story noting Tribune Co. had filed for bankruptcy. Harris responded, 'Lousy product. Inevitable.'

" 'I feel what you are saying,' Ganis responded to Harris. 'It's not just the Chicago Tribune (and your comments are completely understandable). The whole newspaper industry has gone downhill and now we are seeing the effects of decades of monopolistic, insulated, ivory tower, "I buy ink by the barrel so what I say is right' attitude." ' Ganis also noted the Cubs were not part of the firm's bankruptcy filing and said 'Nils is going to call you and Sam is going to call the Gov.' "

It was almost bleeping golden.

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