Time: CNBC Is Us (on Steroids)

My colleague Liz Cox Barrett points to a really good piece by James Poniewozik in Time on the meaning of Cramer vs. Stewart.

Shorter Poniewozik: It’s all about business journalism in general, guys.

He’s right. Here he talks about CNBC specifically:

But being aimed at traders doesn’t mean being in service of CEOs, who were often seeking to spin at best on the network’s air, and at worst were out-and-out lying. The question, as Stewart came at over and over, was: What did CNBC know and when did it know it? Or, rather: if people like Cramer knew there were shenanigans going on on Wall Street—as shown by clips from his excruciating online video cynically describing manipulations that he said he’d never talk about on TV—then why not call them out?

But, of course, it’s not just about CNBC. It’s just the most prominently egregious example of business journalism gone awry. Here, Poniewozik pulls Cramer’s defensive quotes and makes a broader point about business-journalism generally. This one is near to The Audit’s heart:

“These people were my friends.” Cramer said that, or something like it, repeatedly: that longtime friends flat-out lied to him. So problem one: coziness with sources is death for the information business. Now, Cramer is a commentator, not a reporter, and I don’t begrudge him friends per se. But it is a problem when reporters either become too close to their subjects to treat them skeptically, or become so obsessed with access that they are leery of being too skeptical: i.e., “If I do that, they’ll never talk to me again.”

Journalists prize getting people to talk to them, with good reason, but they shouldn’t be hostage to it. Part of the problem is a culture in which interviewing is privileged over research: “reporting” is defined as getting a person to talk to you, preferably a famous person.

Ah yes, the Access Problem.

And something of a corollary:

“It’s difficult to have a reporter say, ‘I just came from an interview with Hank Paulson, and he lied his darn-fool head off.’ It’s difficult. I think it challenges the boundaries.” (ed: another Cramer quote) OK, this is an easy quote to attack—why not just say he’s lying, damn you!—but in fairness it’s not as simple than that. The real story—and not at all a more flattering story—is that lies like these are not obvious and cut-and-dried: refuting them takes a lot of work and a lot of time and often involves sticking your neck out and going against the crowd (see previous point). Much easier to quote your subject, adding a caveat if necessary, and move on.

Go read the whole thing.

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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 rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.