Cramer v. Stewart

By Megan McArdle

The buzz today is Cramer's appearance on Jon Stewart's show.  I've been of two minds about this whole fooforaw, which is why I haven't blogged about it.  On the one hand, I am not a fan of financial cable news (Bloomberg usually excepted).  I think Jim Cramer should be illegal.  Anyone who invests money based on one of these networks, or Wall Street Week, should seriously consider making themselves a ward of the court.  Anyone in the business who goes on one of those shows is talking their book.  If anyone has a good way to make money above and beyond broad, boring strategies like stock indices or bond funds, will not tell you about it.

  

On the other hand, the Jon Stewart video that touched this off was clearly misleading.  I do watch these channels, not for the interview but for the tickers and the breaking financial news.  And it was obvious from the clips that half of them were anchors and reporters simply quoting someone else--it's the equivalent of dinging someone for using a racial epithet in the context of discussing racial epithets.  

Ultimately, I find Stewart disturbing because in some sense he's doing exactly what Cramer is--making powerful statements, and then when he gets called on him, retreating into the claim that well, you can't really expect him to act as if he were being taken seriously.  Jim Cramer, whose stockpicking acumen seems slightly worse than your average monkey with a dartboard, frequently issues recommendations that people act on, then brushes off the failures with a shrug.  

Jon Stewart also shapes peoples' decisions.  Video is a medium with powerful claims to reality--people tend to think that if they saw it, it must be true.  This makes it uniquely good at manipulating its audience with skillful editing.  I'm very sympathetic to Stewart's deep critique of financial shows, but I don't think the way to go about it was to string together a bunch of very misleading clips.  Nor to imply that Santelli, who has been vocally against all bailouts from the beginning, was merely frothing on the forclosure program because ordinary taxpayers were finally getting a taste of federal largesse.  But Stewart carefully claims he's just an entertainer, so he has no obligation to hew to journalistic standards on things like quoting out of context.

Financial journalism isn't, as Stewart argues to Cramer over and over, entertainment.  So how come Stewart acted as if it was?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/03/cramer-v-stewart/1502/