Last summer, Barron’s published a tough story on Jim Cramer, concluding that the manic and popular star of CNBC’s Mad Money program did not, for all his bluster to the contrary, beat the broader market with his stock picks.
While the story didn’t make much of a splash at the time, it sparked a quiet but surprisingly fierce feud between the two business-news organizations, one that seems out of proportion to the story that caused it. Within days of publication, for instance, CNBC officials told Barron’s reporters who had appeared as on-air guests for years that their presence was no longer desired.
Ed Finn, Barron’s editor and president, says no one told him so, but he believes CNBC banished his reporters from on-air appearances in response to the disputed August 20 piece, “Shorting Cramer” by senior editor Bill Alpert.
“They stopped putting us on pretty much from the day after that story ran,” Finn says. “We made our assumptions.”
Mike Santoli, the Barron’s reporter and a regular on CNBC’s Squawk Box and other programs, who was the most frequent on-air guest, had no comment.
The clash shows what happens when one business-news outlet goes after another: bad blood. In a recent interview with me, a visibly distraught Cramer displayed an emotional intensity entirely different from his ranting but comical on-air persona. “It was just so outrageous, so Kafkaesque,” he says of being a Barron’s target.
CNBC says it did not actually banish Barron’s, though it says its experience with the Alpert piece left it questioning the magazine’s integrity and basic fairness. Officals say Alpert approached the story with single goal—to get Cramer on something—and wrote his piece accordingly. “It was never a search for truth,” snaps CNBC spokesman Brian Steel.
For his part, Alpert says CNBC was bent on preventing any independent analysis of Cramer’s picks, then behaved truculently when it didn’t like the result. “They don’t want anybody to test their proposition that you can get rich from watching his show,” he says.
Business editors and reporters have been skeptical of Mad Money since it went on the air three years ago, and there are good reasons why. Wall Street has long been a magnet for hustlers, penny-stock impresarios, tout-sheet publishers, boiler-room operators—charlatans of all stripes. Many business reporters consider exposing Wall Street phonies to be at the heart of their mission. Cramer’s bent for self-promotion, not to mention the show’s format—it resembles a gameshow—make Mad Money one big, red flag.
There’s also a journalism culture clash at work: print reporters are rightly skeptical of televised stock chatter. An on-air remark about some stock - was that a recommendation or just a mention? - disappears into thin air, while a print reporter’s stock recommendation is set in cold type. CNBC officials believe this kind of literalism misses the point of Cramer’s show, which is primarily educational and was never intended to recreate a mutual fund portfolio. And if viewers are entertained while learning, they say, so much the better.
“Mad Money,” which airs weeknights at 6 p.m., is unabashed about its showmanship. For an hour, Cramer appears on a garish set and basically plays the clown. He fools with dolls, blows off sound effects, mugs for the camera, all the while offering commentary that is basically serious, about Fed policy, underappreciated stocks, the economy, you name it.
To see Cramer in person on Mad Money’s closed set is to observe a man deeply absorbed in his work. On a recent visit to CNBC’s studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, I arrived to find Cramer calm, chatting casually off-camera with a guest, Mike Farrell, chief executive of Annaly Capital Management Inc., a tallish fellow who (like a lot of guests) looms over the diminutive star. Cramer politely introduces himself to me, even adding a little bow, and returns to the set where he studiously scribbles notes and checks an on-set computer, trading remarks about the market with Regina Gilgan, the show’s executive producer who strolls behind the cameras with a headset and clipboard.
When a roving camera blinks on, Cramer goes into character, stomping around the set, sleeves rolled up, waving his arms, stopping to stare deeply into the camera with red-rimmed eyes. Touting Petrobras, a Brazilian energy company, he pours Pabst Blue Ribbon into a plastic bathtub and tosses a doll around, a play on the baby-and-bathwater cliché. He is reminding viewers of the stock symbol, PBR, and not to dismiss the company even if other energy companies seem too expensive. The gag doesn’t quite work, but viewers get the idea: Buy Petrobras or at least look into it. (If you’re curious, Petrobras is up eight percent since then.)