Cramer v. Stewart Coverage Largely Misses

The show capped a signal moment in the crisis

There’s not much to say about Cramer v. Stewart that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. It seems everyone, everywhere is all over this one, which Stewart utterly dominated.


But let’s take a closer look at the coverage of the showdown.

Not so good.

Here’s former New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman at her newish site The Wrap, who leads with what she calls a bad PR move by Cramer to even go on the show, and shows that she’s probably better off sticking to Hollywood coverage:

The most damaging material came quickly – tape of Cramer recommending that investors sell stocks short, and admitting that he did it himself.

Oh no! Selling stocks short? And admitting it on tape? Why would Cramer do such a thing?

Well, shorting stocks is a perfectly legitimate activity. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s a bet that a stock will go down, no morally different than a bet that a stock will go up.

What Cramer was talking about on the video Stewart showed was something nefarious, though. It showed Cramer talking about how he illegally manipulated the market when he ran a hedge fund and how he recommends that everybody do it—even recommending a specific company to do it to.

That’s a big no-no, and it’s simply amazing that Cramer let himself be recorded discussing it. But he could just as easily manipulate stocks upward as he could downward. The short/long part is immaterial.

Waxman’s former colleague, Alessandra Stanley of the Times, is also off-base in her superficial review of the program, reviewing it as if it were just another ratings ploy and missing entirely what an important moment this is in the crisis and our conception of it. She moans that Stewart didn’t yuk it up as much as he normally does:

And while it’s never much fun to watch a comedian lose his sense of humor, in an economic crisis, it’s even sadder to see supposed financial clairvoyants acting like clowns.

That myopia reminds me of Stewart’s single-handed destruction of Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN’s Crossfire program back in 2004:

STEWART: You know, the interesting thing I have is, you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.

CARLSON: You need to get a job at a journalism school, I think.

STEWART: You need to go to one. The thing that I want to say is, when you have people on for just knee-jerk, reactionary talk…

CARLSON: Wait. I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny.

STEWART: No. No. I’m not going to be your monkey.

The truth is that this was some of the most gripping television since, well, Stewart’s searing criticism got Crossfire canceled.

And Stanley is just wrong here—CNBC has been trying to extricate itself for a while now from the mess it made promoting Rick Santelli’s lame outburst:

Mr. Cramer tried to be friendly and looked a little taken aback by Mr. Stewart’s prosecutorial tone — he may have been expecting a more jocular give-and-take. But mostly, he sat back and milked every last drop from a tempest-in-a-cablebox that NBC and its sister channels have been fanning ever since the “Daily Show” host began hammering CNBC for its complacent Wall Street coverage, singling out embarrassing market calls by Mr. Cramer in particular.

No, no. This is a public-relations disaster (as well as an existential crisis)—one that was easily foreseen—for CNBC and it knows it. That’s why it yanked Santelli off a scheduled Daily Show appearance in the first place.

Here’s Stanley’s kicker:

Mr. Stewart kept getting the last word, but Mr. Cramer may yet have the last laugh.

Wrong. I mean, come on. Cramer will probably survive this but he has been chastened at the very least. The man acted like a little boy in the principal’s office caught red-handed cheating on a test. Cramer knows this is dead serious. Why doesn’t Stanley the critic?

I think we can all agree, at this late date, that writing about the crisis as if it were a game—picking over procedure and making it a horse race—is a mistake.

The LA Times’s Top of the Ticket blog also misses the big picture. Johanna Neuman writes a tone-deaf post that implies Stewart is just mad about his cash:

In fact, the Emmy-winning Stewart was so caustic — he suggesting Cramer should remove the designation “financial expert” from his pitch — it kind of makes you wonder how much he’s lost in the economic meltdown.

Actually, no it doesn’t. But since the LAT raises the point, I’d bet he’s probably down about like the rest of us in percentage terms. But that’s not what’s animating this. Everybody knows markets go up and down. It’s the corruption, the gaming of the system, and the failure of our institutions—including the press—that’s so infuriating.

The bubble that CNBC reporters and commentators are in is the same bubble that Wall Street is in. It’s the belief that The Market is God. If The Market doesn’t like it, it’s bad. It’s the fixation on short-term fluctuations. It’s the inability to understand that its views don’t represent America because it’s not a cross-section of the country. It’s not even close to being one.

Not all of the coverage was bad. Steve Johnson, for instance, at the Chicago Tribune gets it:

…Jon Stewart positioned himself as the thinking man’s Rick Santelli, as a guy who’s also mad as hell, but at the people who deserve the ire…
He kept the focus, almost unrelentingly, on the Wall Street gamesmen and women who turned bad mortgages into epic disaster and, to his credit, tried to indict Cramer and his colleagues en masse, and for failing a broader civic duty.

And here’s the core point of last night:

STEWART: I got to tell you, you know, I understand you want to make finance entertaining. But it’s not a fucking game. And—when I watch that, I get—I can’t tell you how angry that makes me.

Because what it says to me is: You all know. You all know what is going on. You know, you can draw a straight line from those shenanigans to the stuff that was being pulled at Bear and at AIG and all this derivatives market stuff…

These guys at these companies were on a Sherman’s march through their companies, financed by our 401k’s. And all of the incentives of their companies were for short-term profit. And they burned the fucking house down with our money. And they walked away rich as hell, and you guys knew that that was going on.

The amazing thing about last night’s show was that it showed that Cramer knows he was wrong. He knows CNBC (and much of the business press to a somewhat lesser extent) did abysmally. The guy clearly has a conscience. He’s capable of getting it, unlike some other folks who can’t see the world outside their bubble, like Santelli, whom Cramer ripped last night.

CRAMER: Our real sin, I think, was to believe that it could continue to go up a lot in the face of what you describe, which is a lot of borrowing, a lot of shenanigans. And I know I did.

The question is what is he—and what is his network—going to do about it?

(h/t Romenesko)

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.