By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
What Jon Stewart needs is Jon Stewart. He could use a droll comedian to temper his ferocity and correct him when he's wrong, as he was about the financial media, particularly CNBC and its excitable analyst Jim Cramer. They didn't cover up the story of financial shenanigans. They didn't even know it existed.
For proof, I can offer some names. Let's start with Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, who was instrumental in building what is now probably the world's most reviled corporation, AIG. He resigned as chairman and CEO in 2005, but still it is logical to assume that few people knew more about the company than Greenberg. He kept much of his net worth in AIG stock. He's now lost much of that worth.
Or take Richard Fuld. He is the former chairman of Lehman Brothers, which, as we all know, is no more. He lost about $1 billion.
Or take Citigroup's former chairman, Sanford Weill. He lost about $500 million.
Or take all the good people at Bear Stearns, the company Cramer adored almost to the bitter end. They went down with their stock.
If these people kept their money in these companies -- financial and insurance giants they had built and knew from the inside -- how was even Jim Cramer to know these firms were essentially hollow?
I give you one other name: Richard Cohen. He who writes this column had some of his (extremely) hard-earned retirement funds in AIG stock. This was because I was a cautious investor, and what could be safer than an insurance behemoth? Who knew that in faraway London, a division of AIG was fooling around in stuff that virtually cratered the whole company? Not my broker. Not me. Not even Greenberg.
Now we get back to Stewart. The gravamen of his charge is that the financial media, particularly CNBC and Cramer, knew all the time what was happening and was, in effect, shilling for the industry. "Listen, you knew what the bankers were doing, yet were touting it for months and months," he told Cramer in probably the most celebrated showdown since the Earps and Doc Holliday met the Clantons and others at the O.K. Corral.
The Washington Post and the New York Times both covered Cramer's appearance on Stewart's show and so did the august Financial Times, on Page 1 yet. Trouble was, Cramer almost instantly sank into a classic case of Stockholm syndrome, agreeing much of the time with his captor. He came with sleeves rolled up but with the droopy eyes of a chastised puppy. He allowed that he actually was, really, an entertainer. No!
The acclaim visited on Stewart for spanking Cramer tells you something. In the first place -- and by way of a minor concession -- he's got a small point. CNBC has often been a cheerleader for the zeitgeist -- up when the market's up, down when it's down. This is true of the business media in general.
But the role that Cramer and other financial journalists played was incidental. There was not much they could do, anyway. They do not have subpoena power. They cannot barge into AIG and demand to see the books, and even if they could, they would not have known what they were looking at. The financial instruments that Wall Street firms were both peddling and buying are the functional equivalent of particle physics. To this day, no one knows their true worth.
It does not take cable TV to make a bubble. CNBC played no role in the Tulip Bubble that peaked, as I recall, in 1637, or in the Great Depression of 1929-41. It is the zeitgeist that does this -- the psychological version of inertia: the belief that what's happening will continue to happen.
Stewart, too, rides the zeitgeist. The hunt is on for culprits and scapegoats, and Stewart has served up a cliche: the media. As with the war in Iraq, for which credulous media should take some responsibility, the sins are blown out of proportion. It would be one thing if Wall Street titans by the score were selling their company stock and the media were failing to report it, but when someone puts his money where his mouth is, you have to pay attention. The big shots believed.
Stewart plays a valuable role. He mocks authority, which is good, and he mocks those, such as the media, who take the word of authority as if, well, it's authoritative. But given the outsize reception to his cheap shot at business media, he ought to turn his wit inward: Mocker, mock thyself.