Tue, Mar 17, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Jon Stewart puts herd mentality of US financial media on trial

By David Smith  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

First came the imperial marching music and a fiery explosion.

“You've watched snippets of them for days, or meant to after your friends sent you the link,” a voice boomed with mock gravity. “Tonight, the week-long feud of the century comes to a head.”

It was a comically absurd drum roll for what, on the surface, was merely a squabble between TV presenters. In one corner, Jim Cramer, the closest thing to a celebrity in US financial journalism. In the opposite corner, Jon Stewart, the satirist and host of the fake news program The Daily Show on Comedy Central. But unlike many a big fight, this one more than surpassed the hype. Nothing less than financial reporting itself was put on trial — and found severely wanting.

Cramer, who dispenses raucous advice to investors on the Mad Money show on the business channel CNBC, was eviscerated by a serious and genuinely angry Stewart. Meek and contrite, Cramer was pummeled like a rope-a-dope over his profession's failure to be an effective watchdog of Wall Street. There was no corner man to throw in the towel.

The interview was one of those classic television moments that crystallized the public mood in the credit crisis. Stewart articulated the anger and bewilderment of millions of Americans who now feel ripped off and afraid. He framed the question that everyone wanted asked — how were the financial masters of the universe allowed to pursue their ruinous behavior unchallenged for so long?

The interview has burnished Stewart's reputation as the last best hope in the media when it comes to, in the earnest phrase of news network CNN, “keeping them honest.”

It was this comedian who, like a court jester, told uncomfortable truths about the Iraq War when the mainstream media was playing cheerleader. Now, as the financial apocalypse unfolds, it is Stewart again who is scything through the herd mentality and culture of deference.

James Moore, a former TV news correspondent and co-author of the bestseller Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, blogged: “I am inclined to wonder if there is a line somewhere in the Book of Revelation that proclaims 'and a comic shall lead them.' Jon Stewart has set new standards for both comedy and journalism on television.”

“Oddly, he was originally supposed to just make us laugh on Comedy Central,” Moore wrote. “He's done that, quite proficiently, but Stewart has also figured out that some jokes are sad as well as too important not to tell. But he's not supposed to be doing the job of reporters.”

His assault on Wall Street began in earnest with a classic Daily Show technique — a series of juxtaposed clips revealing incompetence and hypocrisy. First, there was Rick Santelli, a CNBC reporter who tried to strike a populist chord by launching a sudden rant on a trading floor. Stewart, unimpressed, forensically dissected the channel's past mistakes, in which it made exuberantly bullish statements about the market and various investment banks shortly before they collapsed.

Stewart added with his customary caustic wit: “If I only followed CNBC's advice. I'd have a million dollars today — provided I'd started with US$100 million.”

Such is his influence that in the next ratings Mad Money went down 10 percent in the 25 to 54 years old demographic. But Cramer, a former hedge fund manager, is not one to take barbs lying down. Known for his hyperactive style, he declared war with the sarcastic riposte: “Oh, oh, a comedian is attacking me! Wow! He runs a variety show!”

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