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

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Fortune magazine, for instance, reported in 2006 on "How Dick Fuld transformed Lehman from Wall Street also-ran to super-hot machine." Fuld, the CEO, led Lehman Bros. into bankruptcy. Most news outlets ignored or minimized a decision by the Securities and Exchange Commission to rely on investment banks to police themselves, a move cited by the New York Times last fall as a key element in the debacle that followed. At the same time, the Wall Street Journal, among others, highlighted the risks at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, now controlled by the government, and such columnists as Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post and Gretchen Morgenson of the Times warned about massive credit risks.

CNBC reported early last year that AIG's mounting debt load cast doubt on its assurances of creditworthiness. Cramer warned viewers in October to get out of the stock market if they might need the money in the next five years. But the network also hosts a parade of corporate executives, fund managers and investment analysts with a vested interest in talking up stocks.

Stewart's video montage last week showed CNBC staffers and guests appearing to rule out the notion that Lehman, AIG and Merrill Lynch could face bankruptcy, as happened soon afterward. Cramer was seen repeatedly touting Bear Stearns as a good buy in the weeks before the company collapsed.

Stewart has long used quick-cut editing -- a technique that has been copied by some news programs -- and liberals cheered when the target was the Bush administration and the war Stewart dubbed "Mess O'Potamia." But he has periodically erupted about what he views as the media's shortcomings.

At last year's Democratic convention, Stewart called cable news a "brutish, slow-witted beast" whose practitioners are too cozy with the officials they cover.

"People view him now as a truth-teller, not a joke-teller," says Jon Friedman, media columnist for Marketwatch.com. "His satire goes beyond anything that Tina Fey did with Sarah Palin." Stewart, he says, has turned CNBC into "the scapegoat for the recession."

Steve Friedman, a former top executive at NBC and CBS, called Stewart "a 2009 version of Will Rogers -- a social commentator who pokes holes in people who don't usually get holes poked in them." He said CNBC had not been damaged by the ridicule: "They do some very good work, they do some very shoddy work. But if you're looking at how your stocks are doing, that's the place to go."

With such stars as Maria Bartiromo, Erin Burnett and David Faber, CNBC reaches a small but affluent audience -- 282,000 viewers in the first two months of this year -- who appreciate both the real-time financial data and the banter on "Squawk Box" and other shows. Stewart accused CNBC of catering to its well-heeled viewers, asking: "Which side are they on?"

Online reaction tended to split along partisan lines. National Review's Mark Hemingway wrote that "Cramer's appearance on the show . . . was nothing short of a predictable sandbagging, with Stewart hopped up on faux indignation." But James Moore said on the Huffington Post that Stewart "has brought back context to journalism by making people in our drive-by culture responsible for their words and even actions."


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