CNBC’s Jim Cramer’s voice approached a loud crescendo as a breaking-news red banner appeared under his image.
Cramer’s on-air announcement fanned the flames of days of speculation over who might replace Cohn as director of President Trump’s National Economic Council. And it was among the first outright reports that media personality Larry Kudlow could soon be recruited by the White House.
Kudlow is no stranger to Trump or Republican politics. He advised Trump on the 2016 campaign and worked with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on crafting a tax plan. Kudlow also worked on economic and budget policy in Ronald Reagan’s administration before becoming a commentator for CNBC and other outlets.
Among the strongest relationships forged out of that media career? Kudlow and Cramer, the fixtures behind the CNBC business and politics news show that bore their names. Cramer, the founder of the investment website The Street.com, is described on CNBC’s website as the host of “Mad Money” and co-anchor of “Squawk on the Street.”
“Speaking as a friend only, I think [Kudlow] would take the job,” Cramer said.
Cramer delivered his announcement like a juicy scoop for the network devoted to business and economic news, but the interview reflected the wobbly line the cable channel often walks between newsmakers and those who cover them. It’s not unusual to see a guest host one week become a central figure in some business drama the next. Was Cramer merely reporting the facts or giving an endorsement of his longtime friend?
“The major question with Cramer and a lot of other people who just happen to be on TV is, ‘what are they?’ ” said Raymond McCaffrey, director of the Center for Ethics in Journalism at the University of Arkansas. “Are you a reporter? What is your provenance when you’re reporting this? Sound journalism ethics would say, ‘If this is somebody who you’re close to’ … he was on a show with this guy!”
On Tuesday, Trump told reporters that Kudlow has a “good chance” of filling the role. But while Trump said he was “looking at Larry Kudlow very strongly,” the president also said he was “speaking to many others.”
A request for comment from CNBC was not immediately returned Tuesday morning.
Kudlow has been publicly coy about the possibility he might join the Trump administration. Asked directly about it last week, he demurred and reminded his CNBC inquisitors how much he loved working for the network. Kudlow’s relationship to Trump can be just as mystifying to viewers: He’s an adviser behind the scenes, but as a commentator on CNBC he has, if respectfully, criticized the White House’s recent proposal to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
David Karpf, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said that after Cohn’s resignation, Twitter users were promoting Kudlow’s name “as a joke” because “he’s the guy on CNBC who has been saying nice things about Trump all along.”
Karpf said that under previous administrations, general norms would help dictate how newsrooms navigate situations that may border on conflicts of interest. In this case, those norms might help answer whether CNBC feels it has to be careful about how it covers Kudlow, and what Kudlow’s peers “can and cannot say.” Those guidelines might mandate that any future coverage of Kudlow be coupled with a mention of his previous work with the network.
But in the Trump age, Karpf said, there are rarely consequences to people “running up against these norms of political behavior, and how the press is supposed to interact.”
“Today’s reality is stranger than fiction, but it’s what we’re used to at this point,” Karpf said.
McCaffrey said that when he teaches conflicts of interest to his journalism students, he has them think about the number of people in the classroom that they would feel uncomfortable about covering in a news story. Those students “instinctively figure out, how close do I get to somebody when I can’t write about them or talk about them,” McCaffrey said.
“The question of Jim Cramer is, how close are you to that person?” McCaffrey added.
It’s just as relevant, McCaffrey said, to consider how Cramer got his scoop in the first place.“Is it something that was at a dinner party; is it a real story?” McCaffrey asked.
On CNBC on Monday, Cramer did not reveal how he knew his friend would be tapped for the job. But he was certain it would happen.
Quintanilla asked, “Do we think he is the leading contender or a leading contender?”
“The,” Cramer responded with confidence.