Jon Stewart Puts Jim Cramer, and CNBC, on the Defensive

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009

Jon Stewart has amassed a passionate following over the years as a sharp-edged satirist, the man who punctures the balloons of the powerful with a caustic candor that reporters cannot muster.

As public furor over the economic meltdown rises, the Comedy Central star has turned not just his humor but also his full-throated outrage against financial journalists who he says aided and abetted the likes of Bear Stearns, AIG and Citigroup -- especially those who work for the nation's top business news channel.

Stewart morphed into a populist avenging angel this week, demanding to know why CNBC and its most manic personality, Jim Cramer, failed to warn the public about the risky Wall Street conduct that triggered the financial crisis.

"It's bigger than CNBC," said Jeff Jarvis, who teaches journalism at the City University of New York. "As anger rolls across the land about the mess we're in, it's also hitting people who cover the financial world. . . . CNBC is the easiest target if you're doing comedy."

In his much-ballyhooed "Daily Show" face-off with Cramer on Thursday, Stewart accused the network of peddling "snake oil."

"Listen, you knew what the banks were doing," Stewart said. "And yet were touting it for months and months -- the entire network was. So now to pretend that this was some sort of crazy, once-in-a-lifetime tsunami that no one could have seen coming was disingenuous at best and criminal at worst."

Cramer, a former hedge-fund manager known for his bombastic style, sounded apologetic at times, saying he had made mistakes and wished he and the network had done a better job. "I had a lot of CEOs lie to me on the show. It's very painful," the "Mad Money" host said. Video of the interview immediately went viral and was prominently played across the Web, giving it exposure that exceeds Stewart's television audience, which reached 2.3 million this week.

Much of the public, especially on the left, came to resent news organizations for not reporting more aggressively on the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq. Stewart's criticism might tap into similar sentiments across the political spectrum about media complacency during the housing and credit bubble, especially since news outlets were widely accused of boosterism after the late 1990s tech boom that went bust.

The showdown with Cramer came eight days after Stewart blistered CNBC for offering bland assurances about the health of investment banks and for soft interviews such as one last year with R. Allen Stanford, who was asked: "Is it fun being a billionaire?" Stanford was charged last month in an alleged $8 billion fraud.

Cramer has told colleagues he felt blindsided by Stewart's hostile approach. But many CNBC staffers were furious with Cramer yesterday for failing to defend the network's reporting or to criticize Stewart's video clips as selectively edited or out of context. CNBC declined all interview requests, saying in a statement: "CNBC produces more than 150 hours of live television a week that includes more than 850 interviews in the service of exposing all sides of every critical financial and economic issue. We are proud of our record."

Cramer used an analogy to the college basketball playoffs to depict himself as the underdog. "When you are a Big East team and you are 16th seed in the Western Regional, you just want to leave with your head intact," he said by e-mail. "When I walked out, I checked in the mirror. It was still attached. So I am thrilled to have been in the tourney."

Business journalists generally failed to anticipate the magnitude of the Wall Street collapse, reporting elements of the growing risks but rarely trumpeting the threat on the front pages or network newscasts. And CNBC, a fixture on Wall Street, is hardly the only news organization to fall short in the run-up to the crisis.

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