Cramer and Stewart

I’m very much enthused by the proposition that Jon Stewart and his merry band of TIVO-ing staffers should step up their attacks and go after much of the rest of the media.

The basic drive behind the Daily Show‘s criticism of CNBC is that at the end of the day, truth matters. Getting it right matters. That it’s time to cowboy up and act like adults, to be responsible for what we say in public. To wipe off the clown makeup when we’re performing in roles where what we do is consequential.

One of the off-stage handmaidens of the mess we’re in now is that a lot of the mainstream media, a lot of online writers and a lot of public figures all arrived at the same place over the last two decades, that your schtick was what mattered, your brand name, your spin. That you didn’t have any responsibilities beyond that. That you’re just a performer, an entertainer, that anyone who takes you seriously is a rube. That if you’re wrong about fundamentals or facts, bluster and splutter a bit, throw up some smoke, out-yell the other guy, change the subject, and if that doesn’t work, shrug and say, “Who cares, none of this really matters anyway.”

Stewart didn’t let Cramer or his colleagues off the hook with that excuse. It would have been very easy, much less emotionally excruciating, to just open the door to that alibi, to say, “I understand, you’re just trying to entertain, it’s not meant seriously, your viewers understand it’s all an act, maybe you should just put a more explicit disclaimer in front of your show”. But Stewart didn’t invite that escape, and Cramer wasn’t able to seize it from him.

The jaw-dropping refrain from Cramer throughout the segment was, “Well, I talked to this well-placed source and he lied to me.” You talk to a source and if you trust that source, that’s it, case closed, story finished, judgment rendered. It was delicious to see Stewart constantly circle back to this defense and express unfiltered anger and disgust at its patent inadequacy. This is especially true with financial reporting because there is a public record, there is public information, there was enough out there beyond the sources that could have been consistently used to push back on them. There were observers who saw the over-leveraging, the bad debt, the hubris coming from a long ways off, and they didn’t see all of that by calling up a couple of CEOs and asking them if there was a problem.

I do not think that this description of methodology is limited to Cramer. I think it’s what a tremendous amount of mainstream journalism has become, the pimping of connections, the passing-on of self-interested representations from powerful and influential people who are otherwise safely insulated from skepticism. Judith Miller had the same alibi.

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21 Responses to Cramer and Stewart

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    I love Troy Patterson’s line on Slate that Cramer on the Daily Show was “speaking truthiness to power.”

  2. fridaykr says:

    What makes Jon Stewart remarkable is the fact that what he does is so rare — look at old tape, track changes in rhetoric or talking points, and hold pundits and politicians accountable for the claims they make.

  3. dmerkow says:

    I think it works so well on the Daily Show because it is done with a wink even if the result is devastating. Frontline is usually pretty good at using old tape its research.

  4. Laura says:

    I think the problem is Cramer (and many of his colleagues) aren’t really reporters. They have no idea how to ask hard questions. I actually likened them to sports reporters–which is what you become if you can’t play the sport. Cramer and the like wanted desperately to be the guys in the back room making the big deals, but they didn’t make it and now this is the best they can do.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Except Cramer did, to some extent–he was a hedge fund manager, which is the context of what he’s saying on that web video they showed in the segment.

  6. back40 says:

    “it???? what a tremendous amount of mainstream journalism has become, the pimping of connections”

    So, it is so. A number of careful thinkers have been saying that today – journalistic capture is one description and it is likened to regulatory capture.

    However, as you note Cramer was also a player, apparently of the me-too school. Show up, go along, get along, have a seat at the table, yada yada.

    Is this avoidable? Is it career death to do otherwise?

  7. One Spook says:

    What really intrigues me about this episode is the almost universal agreement among observers of all political and ideological stripes that the “methodology” in financial reporting is highly suspect, if not craven on its face.

    The reason for this is apparent — almost everyone has lost money and thus we’re casting about looking to blame the financial reporters for not doing their job as “watchdogs” of our interests.

    While Mr. Burke suggests above, “I do not think that this description of methodology is limited to Cramer.” and then cites Judith Miller’s reporting as an example, I might suggest several other better examples:

    Walter Duranty’s refusal to report on the man-made famine that killed up to twelve million people in Ukraine and his claim that other journalists who reported the truth of the USSR, such as Malcolm Muggeridge and Gareth Jones, were liars;

    David Halberstam’s very false and misleading reporting of the Diem regime and the South Vietnam military as carefully chronicled in Mark Moyar’s scholarly work, “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954 – 1965.”;

    Dan Rather’s use of demonstrably false documents in his reporting of George’ W. Bush’s military service in the incident commonly known as “Rathergate”;

    and, the incredibly false reporting of the Duke lacrosse fake rape hoax in 2006, carefully documented in KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor’s excellent book “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case.”

    In the subject financial reporting, the damage caused by false narratives put forth by craven reporters and the absence of truthful reporting is quite obvious. The damage done by false narratives in the other examples I’ve show above is less obvious because those narratives fit the world view of a good many honest people who refused to acknowledge the truth when it ultimately surfaced.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    There’s a wider historical domain of misrepresentation (and outright hoaxing) that’s very interesting to consider, and some of it is rather complex (e.g., the way in which some false or distorted claims come to be considered facts involves intricate chains of transmission where the first person to say something says it rather speculatively or idly, someone else takes it to be definite, someone else reads the person who took it to be definite, and then later citations only go back as far as the person who turned the claim into fact). But that’s a huge huge subject, and I think everyone can throw some rocks on to the pile of examples, at which point we’ll just be talking about the social and intellectual construction of truth in human history.

    There’s a narrow, specific and contemporary practice I’m interested in here, which is the extent to which mainstream journalists turn to a handful of sources who have a privileged relationship to an ongoing story and allow them to speak through the journalist’s reporting without looking for any public information or countervailing data to push back on that information.

    I think Gary’s right to ask, “Is there an alternative for the people inside those worlds? Do you have to be a player in order to avoid committing career suicide?” I think, cautiously, you can say that yes, there is an alternative. There *are* people who have much more wholesome or complicated methods for reporting. James Fallows strikes me as a good example of someone who may rely on insider information but who almost invariably surrounds that information with the countervailing views of other insiders *and* with a wide range of public information that he’s collected. Part of what’s also needed, though, is editors who have the clarity of mind to walk away entirely from stories that can’t be reported with some degree of skeptical scrutiny applied to sources. If all you’ve got are a couple of people who have some strong interest in one version or another of what’s going on, just walk away. Better no story than the story they’re giving you. Or better a story that’s written entirely out of the public transcript, even if they’re telling you that the hidden reality is something different.

  9. Ralph says:

    One Spook: Merely citing a history of conservatives’ grievances about flawed journalism on the left hardly refutes the point that we tend to accumulate grievances that re-enforce our own particular worldview. It exemplifies that fact.

  10. One Spook says:

    Ralph, I have no idea why you presumed that I was refuting “the point that we tend to accumulate grievances that re-enforce our own particular worldview.” I did not introduce or attempt to refute that point at all.

    My point was directed at the part of Mr. Burke’s posting that “… at the end of the day, truth matters. Getting it right matters.” That seemed to me to be the crux of the Stewart-Cramer interview.

    To that end, I gave four examples where I believe truth was ignored and where journalists did not get it right. That you would characterize those examples as “a history of conservatives grievances” says more about your own worldview than about a concern for truth and getting it right in reporting. Perhaps I should have included “flawed journalism” on the right, of which there are also good examples. I apologize for that omission.

    But, in reading Mr. Burke’s thoughtful reply below mine, I realize that the point I made is not what he’s “interested in here” which is fine, and I respectfully accept that. I will confine any future comments to the point he states in his second paragraph of that reply.

  11. One Spook says:

    “I think Gary??s right to ask, ??Is there an alternative for the people inside those worlds? Do you have to be a player in order to avoid committing career suicide??? I think, cautiously, you can say that yes, there is an alternative.”

    I’d take the “cautiously no” position on that. If we were discussing only the dead tree media, I’d give it a “hell no.”

    The reason I believe that that there is little “alternative” available in the media and that members of the media must be “players” to survive is this: There is a paucity of ideological diversity in the media, and that exists at all levels, particularly at the editorial level. To quote Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, “People in newsrooms may look different, but they all think the same.”

    Numerous independent studies have borne out this fact — the vast majority of reporters and editors describe themselves as liberals and most admit to voting for Democrat Party candidates. This trend began in the 1970s and has actually become even more pronounced since then. Something that you can do at home is to locate a registered Republican and a military veteran in the major media. You can likely write all of their names on a small Post-it sticky note.

    I would think that particularly today, with the value of media companies at an all time low and layoffs occurring, deviating from the company line would indeed constitute “career suicide.”

    I’ve read pundits on this subject who suggest that the lack of ideological diversity in major media groups has actually created the niche that talk radio, a few cable media, and to a large degree, the Blogesphere, have capitalized on for their success. To many, these alternative media provide what you term as “public information or countervailing data to push back on that information” — the information derived from a “handful of sources” — the usual suspects, as it were.

    In the subject interview, Stewart was very careful to use actual footage of (Let’s Roll # 212) Cramer describing his activities as a fund manager wherein he admits to having performed the very machinations that those he now criticizes have done. Stewart essentially says to him, “You knew the truth, why didn’t you tell us?”

    The essential questions to me are these; Why can’t he tell the truth? and, where have we arrived in the media when the lack of ideological diversity proffers a narrative that virtually prohibits speaking the truth?

  12. Ralph says:

    One Spook: If you don’t recognize the four cases you cite as cases of “conservative” talking points, you’re not very well clued in. Or primarily clued in to “conservative” talking points. There’s plenty of evidence of flawed journalism — left and right. It probably isn’t “lack of diversity” that causes the flaws. The right has created its own alternative journalism, which appears to be no more infallible than the left’s.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    One Spook: Fox News. The New York Post. The Washington Times. In fact, a lot of the time, The Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal (editorial, not news). There are other examples.

    The problem isn’t ideology: that’s the tedious, trite refrain. The problem is methodology. Indeed, some avowedly conservative mass media like Fox News only get away from the problem of pimping for sources by not caring that they pimp for sources: at Fox, that’s a proud feature of their style.

    If what you’re looking for is the willingness to dig harder for the complex truths in the world around us, you’re not going to get it by being more ideological.

  14. One Spook says:

    I’m pleased to have Ralph inform me that the search for the truth and getting it right are conservative values … that is enlightening, if not encouraging.

    The right did not create “its own alternative journalism,” Ralph, the market responded to the mainstream media’s purposeful, ideological-driven exclusion of views that are shared by a good half of our population. If you do not believe that, witness the colossal failure in the marketplace of the left’s Air America. It has failed because it has not provided, in Tim’s words, “public information or countervailing data to push back” on the information already provided by most of the media today. The market typically does not accept more supply of what it already has.

    And gentlemen, we agree that there exists “flawed journalism” on the left and the right. I apologized for not including such instances on the right; for example I could have cited the ridiculous non-controversy of our president’s birth certificate as an example. But, I would ask that you send me your link to the Washington Post conservative edition, Tim; I don’t have that one.

    I honestly cannot accept characterizing ideology in journalism as a “tedious, trite refrain.” That’s tantamount to dismissing personality as a factor in interpersonal relationships. But, I’ll accept that methodology is the problem, albeit, driven in a large part by ideology.

    The methodology of pimping for sources and not caring that they pimp for sources has been the cornerstone of The New York Times for most of the 20th Century. Indeed, its access has been the envy of the entire journalism profession. The pimps at Fox news drive rusty old Ford Pintos compared to the gold standard Cadillac pimp mobiles of their New York Times counterparts.

    But, the Bush administration cut off the White House access of the Times’ pimps and for that he paid dearly. His reelection in 2004 had to be the darkest hour for the Times, perhaps surpassed only by its stock being worth less than its Sunday edition and having to borrow 250 million dollars at loan shark interest rates from a Mexican capitalist who owns a personal monopoly on the telephone system in Mexico. The very irony of that transaction should be in the Guinness’s’ Book of world Records.

    And, while I was not either surprised or disappointed by the outcome of the 2008 election, mainstream media ideological bias reached an all-time high. Even CNBC was compelled to “reassign” its two election anchors after their pathetic fawning at the Democratic convention, and the 11th hour attack piece in the Times on Mrs. McCain disturbed even my most ardent liberal friends.

    To use your words, Tim, I’m suggesting here that “the willingness to dig harder for the complex truths in the world around us” is best facilitated by an organization that is ideologically diverse; not “being more ideological,” but being more ideologically diverse.

    And, while we are discussing the media, I would submit that such ideological diversity benefits the academy, government and business equally.

    Honestly, I have a very difficult time understanding why seemingly intelligent, well-educated, respected and thoughtful people with whom I come in contact with embrace diversity in race, class, and gender, and any other protected class you want to name, yet these same people apparently see no benefit whatsoever in diversity based on ideology.

    Why is that?

    Why is it that a history department at the University of Iowa that has 42 professors, non of whom are registered Republicans, considered acceptable when if that same department had no women (it actually has very few), no racial minorities, and no registered Democrats, then all manner of “diversity outrage” in the form of lawsuits, fines, boycotts, etc. would break lose?

    What type of “methodology” is in place when that same department of history would not even grant a personal job interview to an outstanding young scholar, whose apparent views many might consider “conservative,” when he had better credentials, qualifications, and far greater achievement than other applicants who were interviewed?

    Forgive me … I have a lot of questions. (Or is that “alot,” Ralph?)

  15. jpool says:

    That was a really uncomfortable interview to watch but a really strong performance on Stewart’s part. Stewart can joke about reading The Daily Worker but he’s getting at a really core contradiction in contemporary capitalism, as well as in financial reporting. The problem is not just the CNBC aren’t being serious journalists, but that they’re actively complicit in the big lie. The big lie here i that smart middle class people can play the market and ensure their futures (not like those lazy non-investing poor people), when in fact the engines that are actually operating the machine are beyond their control or ken and operating in the interests of an entirely different class of investors. I think it was derf who, back during the dot-com funtown, made the point that markets really do need small investors — in exactly the same way that spooky houses in horror movies need couples whose cars have broken down.

  16. jpool says:

    “The big lie here is” and stupid closing tag.

  17. fridaykr says:

    As the Cramer-Stewart controversy unwinds itself, I had the (mis)fortune of catching a coda of sorts this Sunday on Howard Kurtz’s meta-media show on CNN, Reliable Sources. Kurtz had invited a few guests to opine on Cramer’s interview with Stewart. Among them was Tucker Carlson, who, I can only surmise, was asked to appear simply because he had tangled with Stewart before and could be expected to say disapproving things about him. He did not disappoint. For a transcript see

    What was interesting about this roundtable was not that Carlson managed (again) to demonstrate why he no longer has his own show. It’s that the approach Kurtz and his panel used to dissect the Cramer-Stewart imbroglio duplicated some of the very “journalistic” approaches Stewart has repeatedly critiqued on his show–among them, a failure to question or at least explore basic assertions of fact.

    Kurtz and his guest spent a fair amount of time discussing how well Cramer “did” in his interview with Stewart. Kurtz also mentioned as significant, but never pursued, a fundamental charge Stewart leveled against CNBC — that CNBC reporters like Cramer know that investing is rigged against small investors and is rife with manipulation but ignore these issues in their “reporting.” The conversation moved on with this question unexplored.

    This roundtable encapsulates what’s wrong with even television journalism that aspires to be high-minded and self-reflexive. I happen to like some of Kurtz’s writing for the Washington Post, but as a television host he, like so many others, seems reluctant to force participants to answer or explore the most on point questions. In this instance, as Kurtz himself asknowledged, Stewart had made some fairly incendiary assertions. The most obvious question should be –well, are they true, or is there evidence to think this is true? Were others reporting about these issues that CNBC should have at least acknowledged in its coverage?

    Instead, Tucker Carlson gets away with sidestepping the question –as so many pundits get to do. Carlson doesn’t even try to rebut Stewart, he just goes for the obvious ad hominem attack: Stewart is an egomaniac and a hack for the Democratic party. Oh, well if that is the case, then let’s not listen to a single thing he has to say, right? One irony here is that Kurtz actually played an old clip of Stewart tangling with Tucker and telling him that he “should go to journalism school.” Based on the use of the the ad hominem substituted for analysis of truth content, it seems maybe Tucker hasn’t completed his night school courses.

    I am sure there are those who will counter that if you actually expect your guests to stay on point, be knowlegeable about a subject, and assess truth claims, you will quickly run out of guests. Maybe, but again Jon Stewart shows us that other models are possible. I would point to Stewart’s lengthy debate/interview with Douglas Feith, who was pimping his new book, as an example of not letting guests just make assertion that go unchallenged.

  18. I’m suggesting here that “the willingness to dig harder for the complex truths in the world around us” is best facilitated by an organization that is ideologically diverse….

    And, while we are discussing the media, I would submit that such ideological diversity benefits the academy, government and business equally. (One Spook)

    These arguments for intellectual or ideological diversity have some merit, I think, but at the same time they almost always seem to boil down to the idea that “things would be better if there were more people like me in the media/academia” (and business? I’d love to see the mealy-mouthed Manhattan Institute mount a campaign for more ideological diversity in America’s business executives).

    It would help if the arguments weren’t made so much on the basis of spectacularity, if the scandalous and highly politicized prime examples of bias were put into perspective, because they aren’t identical with “the news.” It would also help if the arguments came with concrete examples of the real-world benefits of ideological balance, ideally in the form of an organization with a track record of getting it right that can be plausibly tied to its diversity.

    Picking up on jpool’s point, it seems that if you want to cast the problems that Stewart went after as ideological what was needed at CNBC was more skepticism about the magic of the unfettered, unregulated free market.

    As I was poking around in the threads of this story, I came across a different angle. It paints Cramer as a especially flamboyant but otherwise typical member of the financial press–in the pocket of corrupt traders and organized crime. The whole thing is spelled out on a site called Deep Capture. I’m wondering if anyone has some background or perspective on the claims being made there. Reading the story (this one) is very much a down-the-rabbit-hole experience–I haven’t had one like it since I read Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, many years ago (that’s the story of how Jesus wasn’t crucified but instead went to the south of France to drink red wine and hang with Van Gogh found the Templar dynasty. It was in the news a few years ago because the authors claimed that The Da Vinci Code violated their copyright).

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    One Spook: I’ve discussed the issues you raise at length on this blog. Read back in the archives if you’re interested in how I work through them. But I’m not interested in having to trudge across an endless terrain of well-worn diversions in every thread. The topic at hand in this post is Stewart and Cramer and how that relates narrowly and specifically to what I see as current methodological problems in the media. If you’re content to cool your heels and wait, I’m sure that sooner or later the question of the political affiliations of the professoriate will come up here again, etcetera etcetera. If you just want to have a “But your guys did this! No, it’s your guys who did that!” conversation, they’re a dime a dozen out there in the blogosphere.

  20. Let me give a little more on-topic focus to my last comment, then. What the “Deep Capture” thing highlights is the possibility that even in the realm of hack journalism we’re dealing with a special case, that the issue isn’t only that “reporters like Cramer know that investing is rigged against small investors and is rife with manipulation but ignore these issues in their ‘reporting'” (fridaykr), it’s that Cramer, and perhaps other “reporters,” were doing the manipulation for financial gain. It’s hard for me to think of what the equivalent situation would be outside of financial reporting. Do even the most unsympathetic interpretations of what Judith Miller did rise to the level of a more moderate take on Cramer, that he wasn’t an outright swindler but just an uncritical cheerleader who had bought into the system?

    One way or another, it’s hard to see how a serious person would have put Cramer on the air in a way that gave the impression he was dispensing sound information. Not to take anything away from what Stewart has done–it’s been a helluva coup, and hilarious too–but the people who should really be in the Daily Show hot seat are the CNBC execs, and perhaps some of the journalists who should have know better. (On HuffPo, Daniel Sinker hones in on Stewart chiding Cramer: “This song ain’t about you.'”).

  21. One Spook says:

    I hear you, Mr. Burke. Please forgive me for not reading your nearly four years of archives prior to commenting, and for straying from the topic at hand.

    “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes [such as my favorite topic of ideological diversity in the workplace], I shall be brief.”

    jpool’s comment was excellent. A wise investor once told me that if you read it in the WSJ or see it on TV, you’re already too late. Brokers make their clients money by not telling others what they do. The “big lie” he describes is the truth.

    There is line between entertainment and actual “advice.” Cramer provides entertainment. If he had such great advice, he’d make more money for himself by making money for clients than by being a comedian on TV.

    As to his methodology, Cramer could heed the advice of a wise old reporter who once said to a cub reporter, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out!”

    And finally, Mr. Zimmerman, I appreciated your thoughtful reply to my off topic comments. “Sooner or later” we’ll revisit that issue.

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