Saturday, March 14, 2009

Feeling Stupid? Go With That Feeling

There's an interesting article at Salon.com by Glenn Greenwald that focuses a bit on the Jon Steward/Jim Cramer kerfuffle that makes for good reading for anyone concerned with how we get our news these days.

Reporter Cramer basically uses the "I was lied to" defense in answering why he continued to tout companies and investments that later imploded during the opening moments of our current financial crisis in 2008. Now, as a reporter, I've fallen back on that defense myself -- and it seems completely justified, until you hear comedian Jon Stewart's response:
But what is the responsibility of the people who cover Wall Street? I'm under the assumption, and maybe this is purely ridiculous, but I'm under the assumption that you don't just take their word at face value. That you actually then go around and try to figure it out.
Ouch. Yeah, Stewart was basically asking Cramer why he wasn't doing his job as a journalist. The old newsroom saw goes "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." In other words, you can't take what your sources say at face value because, more often than not, they've forgotton something, they've unmaliciously exaggerated, they're flat out wrong or, in ways that range from innocent to devious, they've lied to you. I fell into that trap several times as a newspaper reporter, and it always stung. What stung more is that there were ample opportunities to discover that what I was being told was not the truth, but I did not take those opportunities because, well, I was lazy.

Greenwald comes down pretty hard on the established media for this mindset -- and does so justifiably:
That's the heart of the (completely justifiable) attack on Cramer and CNBC by Stewart. They would continuously put scheming CEOs on their shows, conduct completely uncritical "interviews" and allow them to spout wholesale falsehoods. And now that they're being called upon to explain why they did this, their excuse is: Well, we were lied to. What could we have done? And the obvious answer, which Stewart repeatedly expressed, is that people who claim to be "reporters" are obligated not only to provide a forum for powerful people to make claims, but also to then investigate those claims and then to inform the public if the claims are true. That's about as basic as it gets.

Today, everyone -- including media stars everywhere -- is going to take Stewart's side and all join in the easy mockery of Cramer and CNBC, as though what Stewart is saying is so self-evidently true and what Cramer/CNBC did is so self-evidently wrong. But there's absolutely nothing about Cramer that is unique when it comes to our press corps. The behavior that Jon Stewart so expertly dissected last night is exactly what our press corps in general does -- and, when compelled to do so, they say so and are proud of it.
I'm not sure there are any reporters who are immune to taking this defense, and who are sheepishly proud of their efforts once they make the effort, rather than go through the motions. There are many out there who do exactly what Stewart advises Cramer to do, and the industry is duly proud of them. But more often than not, going through the motions is what meets the deadlines and is what makes the job the easiest. I'm working as hard as I can to recognize that kind of behavior in the tasks I take on now, in a different field of communications. Part of that recognition includes finding ways to erradicate that behavior. Taking that kind of defense doesnt' make you look like a victim of circumstance, it makes you look stupid. And as my brother says when I mention I'm feeling stupid: "Go with that feeling."

But it's interesting to hear a comedian like Stewart say it. Nobody, as Greenwald says, will pay attention to the advice, beyond snickering that it was Cramer who got fed that crow sandwich on national television. I'd like to think that Cramer learns a lesson from this encounter, and that others in the business take heed of it as well. I know I'll look at ways to do it in my own job as well.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is ironic that Jon Stewart and a comedy show instead of the regulators or news media had to bring all of this public. Also in Cramers defense he is far less guilty than most of the other financial media for their efforts together with Wall Street, the politicians & incompetent regulators for what has happened.

While I enjoy watching Cramer every night, one must remember the show is primarily entertainment. The financial networks exist to promote their advertisers financial and investment products. Who would expect them to warn about the credit bubble or coming Washington national debt collapse which will destroy much of the remaining private wealth in America today or what this will do to the dollar, the stock market, bonds, gold or the real estate market?

China is now worried about their dangerous over investment in US Treasury obligations. Washington ’s long-term choice is either repudiation or monetization. For monetization to be effective, the depreciation in the dollar would have to be substantial and this in turn would dramatically raise prices of imports for American consumers which would mean a tremendous drop in foreign imports. Debt monetization would cause more disruption to exporting nations than selective repudiation of Treasury debt.

The Campaign to Cancel the Washington National Debt By 12/22/2013 Constitutional Amendment is starting now in the U.S. See: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=67594690498&ref=ts

Thanks,

Ron with 30 plus years in the investment business and banking industry.

Brian Davidson said...

Thanks, Ron.

That's the curse of the 24-hour news cycle. They have to find things to fill in the gaps, and they end up with entertainment-cum-news like Cramer (and like Stewart). What's odd, though, is that those who laud Stewart and defame Cramer are going to hold Cramer to the higher standard, because his show isn't billed as comedy. It's in that cable-created netherworld that's now news and it's not necessarily funny; it just is.

I agree with you that Cramer is a LOT less guilty than the others you mention. But he's the front man and the popular butt-boy right now, so he's taking the heat. I congratulate him for taking the heat when there are plenty of other more guilty parties out there who were not willing -- and who are secretly and publicly enjoying Cramer's moment in the public squirm. Kinda reminds me of Stanley Bing's definition of bullshit -- we all throw it, we all wait to see what sticks, and we're all amused when we get caught throwing it because we know from whence it came.