Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why is a Comedian Our Only Journalist?

by Marcus Sakey

I imagine many of you are Daily Show watchers. For those that aren’t, there’s recently been a scuffle between Jon Stewart, the host, and CNBC, the financial network. Stewart has been hammering them for turning financial news into entertainment, for shoddy reporting, and for essentially acting as a mouthpiece for CEOs.

Jim Cramer, the hyperactive host of Mad Money, is a perfect example. His recommendations are treated like gospel by many investors, and yet his picks—like recommending Bear Stearns repeatedly, including five days before its collapse—are, umm, not 100%. The problem, however, is less that he made some wrong calls, and more that he simply took the word of corporate CEOs, including those at Bear, and broadcast it as journalism.

Anyway, last week Cramer agreed to come on the Daily Show for what I imagine he expected would be a comic interview. Instead he found himself in the kind of interview I’ve been dying for our most prominent journalists to do. Informed, respectful, not personal, but actively attacking deception and obfuscation.

It was a thing of beauty. I actually found myself applauding on the couch.

I won't post all of the segments (you can find them here if you like) but here is one that sets the stage:

And here is the interview itself:

All I can say is, A) God bless Jon Stewart, and B) Why aren't our "actual" journalists doing this?

What do you think, folks? Am I off base in thinking that it might be nice if other reporters followed his lead?


Dana King said...

For years I have been frustrated by watching top interviewers--from Mike Wallace to Tim Russert to Barbara Walters--get right up to the pay-off question, the question I'd pay money to be able to ask the guy they have in front of them, and not ask it. Stewart asked several pay-off questions with Cramer, and exposed him, and much of the financial media, for the naked emperors they really are.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Look how many newspapers are filing for bankruptcy and laying off staff these days.

Part of the reason is because they're losing relevance with their audience, and part of the reason they're losing relevance is that they spend too much time and too many inches focusing on quick-sell headlines without offering substantive, investigative journalism. The print media in particular never should have tried to emulate the TV soundbite style. We're now at the point of losing the written record, losing the documentation of quotes, of incidents, that we used to have, as the problem with online news is the lack of archives. All too often, stories I've linked to have dead links a month later.

Just look at the debacle with Fox News ( manipulating an old clip of Biden's to make accusations against the government and score points at the expense of the truth. The average person does not have access to archives of tv shows at their disposal and hours on end to watch them, and they don't even realize how much they rely on the media to prove or disprove the truths of accusations. In losing an independent voice that's committed to investigative journalism, we've created a situation where yes, we must rely on a comedian to bring us proof of lies.

At least someone's stepping up to the plate.

Dana King said...

Good points, Sandra. I was talking to someone yesterday about the state of newspapers, and how I thought their decisions were backward and potentially self-destructive. I realize foreign bureaus, wars, and investigating the context of stories are expensive. They what also made newspapers unique providers of news. If they're going to focus on features, opinions, and low impact (read: inexpensive) reporting, they're competing directly with cable television and supermarket magazines (US, People, etc.). That's a battle the newspapers can't hope to win. They are in the process of abondoning their nice to fight the enemy on the enemy's chosen ground. That can't end well.

Corey Wilde said...

Dana, you're right, we've been seeing this lack of journalistic integrity for years. Remember how the journalists all kind of thought that if not for them the true story of Hurricane Katrina would never have been told? They all kind of patted themselves on the back and then went right back to being the spineless yes-people they've been since the 1980s. Anderson Cooper went from being an admired journalist to guest-hosting on Regis & Kelly.

Sara Paretsky said...

This just in: newspapers are not unprofitable. They turn profits, but not at the mega-levels Wall Street loved in the boom market. So they shed the investigative reporters that formed the backbone of good journalism, and every time they halved their newsrooms, their stock prices doubled. Ditto for investigative journalists in broadcast media. Most of the in-depth stories that are carried on-line have their origin in print. With paid, quality print journalism on the wane, we're left to shrieks and shouts. I enjoy Jon Stewart's show, but what he was doing with Cramer was no more an in-depth look at the economy than Cramer's original shrieks of 2 years ago...when he was in company (according to a print journal I read this morning) with almost every financial person in the country, with the exception of Paul Krugman.

Libby Fischer said...

Dont forget who owns the media: GE, Viacom, Disney, Murdoch, etc. With a very few exceptions, the media dog doesn't bite the hand that feeds them. Or invests their 401Ks for them. Or pays their health insurance.

Dana King said...

You're right about Stewart, but he said so right up front in the Cramer interview. "We're both snake oil salesmen," he said. (I'm paraphrasing.) "But I admit it, and you pretend you're selling the cure for something."

Steerpike said...

I think Libby has the right of it. The vast majority of mainstream news media outlets are owned by massive conglomerate companies - companies with political and profit interests. Companies that aren't above ordering the news be manipulated to achieve their goals.

I think this is why a comedy show has become one of the few intelligent and viable news sources available today. I don't know who owns Comedy Central, but The Daily Show is much more likely to report certain kinds of news than the networks or big papers. Traditional reporting is in trouble not because there aren't any Woodwards and Bernsteins any more, but because those journalists are prevented from doing their jobs. The rise of the internet has changed the way reporting is done, and puts much greater responsibility on the shoulders of the news consumer - in that it's up to us now to find sites we consider trustworthy and valid, and know to discount the ones that aren't.

Anonymous said...

Newspaper journalists hate being lumped into the all-everything category of media because it includes all the talking heads (or shouting when you're talking about Fox) of TV and of course the natural inclination is to intertain instead of inform. Newspapers are far from perfect and are losing audiences to the Web, TV as well as revenue, but I just wish there was more of a distinction when people talk about the media.

Marcus Sakey said...

Fine points, all. Interesting that everyone jumped to newspapers, though; while they have traditionally been the place for strong investigative journalism, I'm by no means limiting my frustrations to them. In fact, in this era, I think television journalists have a far greater opportunity to do some good.

Sara, you point out that Jon Stewart's didn't offer a more in-depth look at the economy than Cramer, and that's true. However, I don't believe that was his intent--his intent was to take CNBC to task for the failure in their responsibility. They're a dedicated financial network, and yet they took at face value the statements of billionaire CEOs. People who followed their advice, which is to say, regular people, lost unbelievable amounts of money.

Libby, your point is spot-on, of course. But if it's too much to ask that journalists investigate their parent companies, how about some hard questions for politicians? Did anybody else watch Charlie Gibson's campaign interviews and want to shake him till his eyeballs rattled?

Mark Combes said...

Jon Stewart is a mensh. He doesn't suffer fools well. And we seem to have plenty of fools these days.....

Anthony said...

For the record, Viacom (Sumner Redstone) purchased Comedy Central from Warner for 1.4 Billion. That is consistent with thoughts that these are owned by large interests who can manipulate the news. Viacom a huge conglomerate and it is quite interesting they haven't tried to muzzle Stewart.

Anonymous said...

Comedy our only journalist!?

Take a look at this website then -

I can't figure out if this guy is real or not?!