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Friday, March 13, 2009

CRAMER vs. NOT CRAMER*

It’s pretty much a cliché to say that comedians are the only people allowed to speak the truth in a society. If there was any doubt, last night’s episode of the Daily Show was a pretty good example.

Jon Stewart spent most of the show interviewing “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer and it wasn’t quite what I expected. Stewart spent much of the past week attacking CNBC for its reporting before and during the recent financial collapse. His point was that the financial network was playing cheerleader for the investment banks that were taking unreasonable risks. In the process, the argument goes, CNBC encouraged people to invest in funds the network should have known were bad.

Cramer took exception with some of Stewart’s criticisms and made the rounds on various NBC-owned networks to make his case. Stewart did some more pieces mocking Cramer, and before you know it we had a full blown media feud. But the feud seemed a little manufactured by the 24-hour news networks that apparently had little else to report on.

So when I heard Cramer was coming on the Daily Show, I had an idea of what I would see. Cramer would come on and submit himself to some good natured ribbing from Stewart, then deliver some mea culpa and defend his network. In the end, the two would have a pleasant exchange that would end in a hug and perhaps even a commitment for Stewart to appear on Mad Money.

That’s not what happened. Instead, Stewart acted as both prosecutor and lead speaker at an intervention. He played numerous video clips of Cramer talking about short selling or how to talk the market down. Stewart swore, shouted, and at one point appeared to come close to tears. He clearly articulated popular rage at Wall Street and asked Cramer to account for his contributions to the financial crisis.

As a piece of television theater, it was riveting. Just about everything on television these days is so pre-scripted and pre-packaged that it wrings all the life out of it. But for about 30 minutes something truly unpredictable was happening.

I watched the interview with Julie and she mentioned that it was less an interview than Stewart lecturing Cramer. Several times, Stewart asked Cramer interesting questions that Cramer never really got a chance to answer. In fact, the unusually contrite Cramer had a hard time getting a word in edgewise.

Despite all that, I thought the interview was a useful exercise. First, it was a great catharsis. CNBC has been shouting at us so long, it’s about time somebody finally shouted back and said, “this isn’t a f---ing game,” as Stewart did. And while Cramer didn’t really have a chance to answer many of the tough questions Stewart asked, they’re out there now and they’ll be repeated often during the next several weeks. I promise you, a lot of the weekend political and finance chat shows will contain segments on the financial media, their role in the financial crisis, and their responsibility to the public.

Cramer’s best point during the interview was that journalists, financial and otherwise, can’t really call high officials on their B.S. He told the story of a reporter coming back from an interview with then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and saying, “That guy did nothing but lie today.”

Of course, the reporter didn’t say that on the air. It breaks the rules. But I wish it didn’t. There are just too many self-evident truths reporters turn up that they aren’t really allowed to say. I guess that’s why we have comedians.

(*Title stolen directly from the Daily Show)

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