Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer: Well-earned catharsis or pointless bullying?

03.13.09 8 years ago 5 Comments

Frank Ockenfels/Comedy Central

Somewhere in the deepest, darkest corners of the Internet (and cyberspace isn’t just some lazy triangle with only three corners, its corners are legion), there’s a dark recess reserved for crush videos. According to the alarmist anchors on the 10 p.m. FOX news, you can hardly navigate from one page to the next without stumbling upon some amateurishly produced footage of a woman in heels stepping on a gerbil, a hamster, a poor defenseless kitty. 

Last night, though, Comedy Central aired a crush video of its own, masquerading as humor, and this morning the online circles I frequent are full of posters celebrating the squish film as if it were some sort of triumph of journalism, some sort of victory for the little guy. 

I’m referring, of course, to Jon Stewart and his Thursday (March 12) night “interview” with CNBC’s Clown Prince Finance Jim Cramer. 

[Clips of the interview and my thoughts after the break…]

On Facebook and Twitter and several of the blogs I frequent, people I usually respect have been passing around the Cramer/Stewart video as this morning’s liberal Holy Grail, a path to catharsis in these troubled economic times. This is odd, because I watched the interview last night and the extended interview online and all I see is a comedian masquerading as a muckraker lecturing a financial stuffed shirt masquerading as a journalist.  It’s a public flogging and, as such, it’s vaguely satisfying, but what of it?

The Stewart/Cramer interview was the culmination of a week-long “Daily Show” crusade against CNBC. The starting point of Stewart’s offensive aired on March 4, lambasting Cramer and, particularly, Jim Santelli and it was an example of what “The Daily Show” does best. It was just a compilation of contradictory clips, exposing the hypocrisy, desperation and shoddy journalism that CNBC has employed over the past year. Every once in a while, Stewart popped up making funny faces, but he didn’t need to do anything more than that. The point was made. Then Cramer, obviously feeling hurt, went on a tour of NBC properties lamely defending his case and Stewart responded, again brilliantly, with fake guest appearances on “Dora the Explorer” and “The Hills.”

The media winner in this battle was, without question, Stewart. It wasn’t even close. Then on Thursday, Cramer came on “The Daily Show” and, if you trust the media, Stewart scored his knockout. 

I’ve actually seen people compare it to the Frost/Nixon interviews or to Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy. I think the people making those references were joking, but I’m not completely sure. This wasn’t Frost/Nixon and it wasn’t Murrow/McCarthy. This was the Rumble in the Jungle if Ali employed the rope-a-dope, but Foreman never got tired.

Cramer had been coached not to fight back. The prop-loving lunatic from “Mad Money” was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we had a meek-looking wallflower who was told he couldn’t win by playing Stewart’s game. Cramer leaned back against the ropes and just let Stewart punch him. An interview? Did I miss something? Stewart lectured Cramer on business ethnics, journalism and fiscal responsibility. He brow-beat him about the state of cable news and information distribution. He yelled at Cramer. He swore at Cramer. And all the while, Cramer nodded, shrugged his shoulders and periodically agreed. Stewart almost never paused his harangue to let Cramer talk, though occasionally he stopped to let the audience clap, because Stewart was doing exactly what they wished they could do. He was, in fact, giving voice to the frustrations of all of his viewers.

What he wasn’t doing was conducting an interview. Frost’s victory over Nixon didn’t come because he sat there and told the former President he was wrong. He let Nixon talk himself into a corner, he gave him exactly enough rope to hang himself. And if you watch the real interviews, rather than Ron Howard’s trumped up, over-scored film version, it wasn’t a clear and decisive victory for justice. It was a judges’ decision and history gave the win to Frost. Nixon played a role in his own demise. 

Fans of the interview will tell you that Stewart was David and Cramer was Goliath, but that only works if you ignore that this David is a hugely wealthy, Emmy-winning media darling operating on his home turf and Cramer’s Goliath just curled up into a ball and accepted his pelting. Under the best of circumstances, Stewart is a spotty interviewer, but he didn’t even try to toy with Cramer. This was his courtroom and he was judge, jury and executioner. 

Also, what did Cramer do to deserve being the target of Stewart’s vitriol anyway? He doesn’t run AIG or some disgraced hedge fund. He doesn’t even run CNBC. He’s just a laughable talk show host. Stewart kept talking about how seriously people take Cramer, but has Cramer ever taken Cramer seriously? I seem to recall “Arrested Development” cameos in which Cramer was utterly content to mock himself. Is he just a parrot for the business interests, a dupe who let himself be fooled and used by crooks and thieves? Yes. Cramer deserves every mocking clip package you can throw at him. In a moment in history where he could have best-served his viewers by being sane, thoughtful and inquisitive, he was lazy, complacent and sloppy. 

But why did Stewart need to make him the whipping boy for the entire economic crisis? Or even for CNBC’s failures in said crisis? Does Stewart think Cramer sat in a room and devised the slogan “In Cramer We Trust”? 

No, Stewart’s gripe appeared mostly to be with the CNBC promotional department for making Jim Cramer seem like a more important and trustworthy man than he ever personally claimed to be. Does this mean that Stewart will bring on the NBC promo team for a 30 minute lecture on how “Mama’s Boys” was not, in fact, the most anticipated show of last year? Will he take a cat o’ nine tails to the ABC promotional team for claiming that somebody was going to die in the two-hour “Brothers & Sisters” event? Will he draw and quarter whoever keeps spoiling “24” plot details in advertisements?

Stewart dedicated more time to yelling at Jim Cramer than he’s given to foreign dignitaries, Oscar winners and revered authors. By the end of the 30 minutes, he could have gored Cramer with a trident and the crowd would have roared for blood. 

For me, the Stewart interview did the impossible: It made me feel sorry for Jim Cramer. I didn’t feel very sorry and I don’t feel sorry for him anymore, 12 hours later, but for a brief instant, I wanted somebody on Cramer’s side to just throw in the towel. 

The joke has always been that we take Jon Stewart more seriously than most news anchors even though he’s a comedian. Absolutely. But he’s playing a different game, as he’s so often said, as he insisted to Cramer last night, even as he played a cut-rate Mike Wallace, a bargain basement Katie Couric. 

It was cheap, ill-earned catharsis last night, at the expense of a many who  wasn’t worth half the time Stewart gave him, nor half the abuse.

Watch the videos… You decide!

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