Friday, March 13, 2009

Dear American Media: Stop Hurting America

It speaks volumes about the sad state of current affairs that we’ve looked to a comedian/satirist not once, not twice, but three times now to speak the truth about the failure of the American news media.

Jon Stewart first started this with his 2004 appearance on the now-defunct “Crossfire,” when he told Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to “stop hurting America.”

Stephen Colbert’s appearance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Assn. dinner was a biting scold to the journalists who should have protected us from a rush to war, the loss of civil liberties, and stolen elections. Those people chose to simply play along, instead of doing their jobs. For shame.

And last night Jon Stewart again stepped into his advocate’s role. His interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer was painful to watch. Stewart tried to get Cramer to admit that the financial news media knowingly sold snake oil to boost ratings and profits, instead of giving actual news that Americans needed to make informed decisions about their finances.

Stewart got angrier and angrier as Cramer offered lame “no one could have anticipated this” and “they all lied to me” excuses, completely dodging any responsibility he and his network had in creating a false picture of the financial world. Said a visibly angry Stewart:
"I understand you want to make finance entertaining. But it's not a fucking game," he told Cramer. Then, referring to that video, he continued:

And I -- when I watch that, I get, I can't tell you how angry that makes me. Because what it says to me is that you all know. You all know what's going on. You can draw a straight line from those shenanigans to the stuff that was being pulled at Bear and at AIG and all this derivative market stuff that is this weird Wall Street side bet... Listen, you knew what the banks were doing and yet were touting it for months and months. The entire network was. And so now to pretend this was some crazy once-in-a-lifetime tsunami that no one could have seen coming is disingenuous at best and criminal at worst.

It took 20 minutes for Cramer to finally admit, “I’m a commentator. [...] I’m a guy trying to do an entertainment show about business for people to watch.”

Yeah. An entertainment show. Nice of you to finally admit it. I wonder if CNBC ever will?

One of the reasons I’ve said I hate those E*Trade commercials with the talking babies and the Asian immigrant family urged to “push the button, Mr. Lee!” is that the financial markets are not child’s play. It’s serious business with serious consequences, yet over the past 10 years we’ve been fed this lie that the markets are a fun little sandbox that everyone should play in. And that general attitude has spread from the Washington politicians trying to privatize your Social Security to the financial news outlets who peddle “entertainment shows” as serious information. What they don't tell you is that behind the scenes some Oz-like character is manipulating the rules of the game.

I close with this exhortation to America’s news media -- financial, political, and every other kind. It’s the words of Jon Stewart from his 2004 “Crossfire” appearance:

“Come work for us .... we need your help. Right now you’re helping the politicians and the corporations. You’re part of their strategies.”

America needs a robust news media. Not Kabuki theater and “entertainment.” Come work for the American people. We may not pay as well as the other guys but at least you’d have your integrity.