In the annals of business-press criticism, we are humbled to have to admit that there may have never been anything better than the utter beatdown Jon Stewart delivered to Rick Santelli and CNBC last night on The Daily Show.
We can only imagine what it would have been like if CNBC hadn’t suddenly realized its “Rick’s Revolution” campaign had backfired on it, causing it to yank Santelli from a scheduled appearance with Stewart last night. That would have been fun, but then we wouldn’t have had the genius unleashed last night. And I don’t use “genius” lightly.
First Stewart lobs a couple of satirical grenades Santelli’s way:
He’d done some critical reporting on the hundreds of billions of dollars of bailout money going to failed banks and failed automakers and… insurers of failed banks and automakers. But when it looked like the president wanted a small percentage of that money to go to actual homeowners: Oh-ho! David Banner became the Incredible Santelli.
And then he plays the clip of Santelli going off on “losers” who are struggling with their mortgages and taunting Obama, and follows with this:
Yeah man! Wall Street is mad as hell! And they’re not going to take it anymore! Unless by it you mean $2 trillion in bailout money. That they will take.
Stewart makes quick work of Santelli, but then he turns both barrels on the network itself, in the process making a great point about who’s more responsible here. Barry Ritholtz is right: I’d love to be in on that PR meeting today (emphasis is mine):
But see Rick Santelli is angry that these “loser” homeowners are going to get bailed out. He believes in personal responsibility. He believes in lot rewarding the losers for missing all the warning signs. I mean, for God’s sake, the guy works at CNBC! They’re the best of the best!…
So to all you dumbass homeowners out there who let your optimism and bad judgment blind you into accepting money that was offered to you from banks: Educate yourselves
What follows is a five-and-a-half-minute sacking of CNBC—a list of embarrassing clips of the network’s talking heads getting it very, very wrong followed by black screens reporting what happened to their predictions. It’s hilarious, starting with the slam of Jim Cramer’s infamous defense of Bear Stearns less than a week before it essentially collapsed. Cramer also gets hit for telling investors to buy stocks at the top of the market even though he admits they’re overvalued (to his credit, Santelli has slammed Cramer on the same thing). I was glad to see the especially terrible Larry “Goldilocks” Kudlow come in for a kick in the pants, too.
Now, I’ll point out that these are selective clips taken from thousands of hours of broadcast time. It’s impossible to be on live television that long without screwing up. We all get that.
But what makes this so interesting is what Stewart does to pierce the CNBC bubble on several different things that make the network so disliked by business journalists generally: Its lack of a line between opinion and reporting (and lack of disclosure about who’s a reporter and who’s not). Its Siamese-twin closeness to Wall Street. Its rah-rah rooting for the stock markets. Its inanity in interviews that too often veers into sycophancy. On the other hand, if there is a discomfort among the business reporters with CNBC, it might be because the network’s bad practices are only extreme manifestations of wider cultural problems in their profession.
The show pieces together a series of clips of sycophantic questions lobbed at CEO’s that’s truly cringeworthy. It gets at the whole “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” thing. A CEO saying his company is okay is almost completely valueless. When are they not going to say that? Believe me, I’ve interviewed a lot of them. They just don’t do it.
Stewart catches Maria Bartiromo falling into this laziness with the now-disgraced John Thain:
THAIN: I think that the view is that yes, the U.S. is going to slow down, but there’s still a lot of optimism around the world.
BARTIROMO: It’s amazing we’ve had a lot of executives on who say the same thing, that in fact there businesses are doing okay. (end clip)
STEWART: That is amazing. I mean these CEO’s saying their own businesses are doing okay! I mean, it makes sense to take the CEO’s word for it. For instance, I know OJ Simpson. He told me that he didn’t kill anybody, and he should know—he was there!
Then he nails CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla for an unfortunate question made even more unfortunate in hindsight by the fact that he asked it to now-exposed Ponzi schemer “Sir” Allen Stanford, something Stewart calls “perhaps the network’s finest hour”:
QUINTANILLA: Before we let you go, is it fun being a billionaire? (chuckling)
STANFORD: Well, uh, yes. Yes, yes, I have to say it is fun being a billionaire.
Believe me, this Daily Show segment is buzzing around financial circles today. At least financial journalism circles. I’ve already received emails from multiple reporters about it, including this one from a prominent business journalist:
I think you’ll find that CNBC is really despised by financial journalists for a host of reasons. Problem is that nobody, myself included, will say so for the record.
But beyond the hilarity and the inside-baseball business-journalism stuff, I think this means something bigger. Stewart (with the help of his writers, of course) is the most incisive cultural critic in the land. Period. He’s watched by millions on Comedy Central and on the Web. This one will be emailed around to all corners of the country.
It should be an “aha!” moment for those who have been snookered by the likes of Santelli and let down by the business press in its incomplete and inconsistent portrayal of the roots of this catastrophe. All roads lead to Wall Street (and to regulators, but who do you think lobbied and funneled money and greased the revolving door to support the movement to have regulators not regulate?).
And as Stewart said in his interview later in the show with Joe Nocera of the Times:
Don’t they have, is there, has there been any responsibility for CNBC, Bloomberg, for any of these organizations to be ahead of this in any way?
Watch this segment. In fact, watch the whole show. There’s another segment that blows up the idiocy of the blabber (including, prominently, from CNBC’s Cramer, who now calls Obama a “Bolshevik”) about Obama causing the stock-market crash (it has nothing to do, of course, with our cratering financial system/economy) and that the Dow signals Americans’ disapproval of his presidency despite poll ratings that show he’s popular. And the Nocera interview. And the Moment of Zen. Watch it all.
CNBC, Stewart is holding up a mirror. Take a look.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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.