Politics & Media
Mar 16, 2009, 08:13AM

Stewart's Folly?

Does Stewart v. Cramer represent the comedian’s greatest real-journalism coup yet, or just his growing self-seriousness? A conversation between Splice’s editors.

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John Lingan:
We've been asked, both by the blogging chorus and the Daily Show host himself, to recognize Jon Stewart's recent interview with Jim Cramer as a legitimate cultural-political event, but I think this could conceivably be seen as Stewart's jumping-the-shark moment some time down the road. I'm a fan of Stewart and The Daily Show (even though I've sensed a certain growing frat-boyish broadness in the show's comedy over the last year or so), but he's reached a point of cultural saturation and influence that's making it harder and harder for me to accept his continued "We're just entertainers!" mantra whenever a debate gets heated. And with Cramer, I see him going after low-hanging fruit, on his extraordinarily comfortable home turf, and puffing out his chest a little too much given the circumstances.

Stewart's program is most purposeful and urgent when he's satirizing the media rather than politicians, so his hostility towards CNBC in light of recent economic events is a great move. But his focus on Cramer gives more credit to this stooge than seems appropriate. Here's a guy whose job is to bang gongs and scream into the camera while soothsaying about dividends and downturns; Cramer, too, is a mixture of entertainer and political commentator, only his network has chosen to work his image from the opposite angle as Stewart's. He's advertised ("In Cramer We Trust") as an oracle but people watch because he's a clown. But unlike Ta-Nehisi Coates, who ultimately indicted American viewers for indulging Cramer in the first place—asking, "Why is there a market for foolishness?"—I can't possibly think of Cramer's success as so individualistically pure. He's got a schtick, and his mondo-corporate overlords fund it and advertise it because that kind of thing sells.

And really, it sells because of ground paved by Stewart, who's got a much more creative, societally useful schtick, but who still makes his money by producing a pseudo-current events show and packing it with fun little bells and whistles that excite his core demographic(s). So his attack of Cramer seems disingenuous, particularly when he does it in front of his own fawning audience rather than on the road like when he taunted Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on Crossfire. I simply can't give him credit (or accept the interview's tone of gravitas) for mocking a guy whose very appeal is his shock-jock buffoonery. Had Stewart done some kind of man-on-the-street comedic thing going after the goons at CNBC who deified and legitimized Cramer to boost ratings, then that might have been something. But Stewart's acting (and many media types have slavishly agreed) like this showdown is somehow bigger than one improbably influential TV personality getting in some easy licks on another.

Andrew Sargus Klein
I can get on your “Stewart is jumping the shark” boat, though I’d equivocate and say that he’s overgrown his role—as in, he still has much more to offer the public at large—than taken a turn toward irrelevancy. But note the show in question’s opening segment, full of hey-look-at-this-“serious”-guy-arguing-with-this-“unserious”-guy humor: Stewart, if anything, is very much aware of the image you’ve described, John. He is an entertainer, and he knowingly retreats behind that title. But going over the unedited interview—with plenty of “fucks” coming from Stewart—there was, undeniably, anger in his voice and in his demeanor and in his composure. A deep, slow burning anger that speaks of a child’s empty college account, or a mother’s disappearing retirement fund—while a hero for the stoned collegiate and intellectual blogger set, Stewart tapped into that red-blooded American gene: populism.

And he did it well. And it can be said, I think, without apologizing for Stewart’s flirting with both sides of the entertainer-journalist divide, that something had to be said. At the least, a chunk of the public is aware of CNBC’s terrible record of commentary and analysis, or that Jim Cramer really is a windbag and should be treated as such. The mainstream news media, shamed after being sold the jerry-rigged sandcastle that is the Iraq War, now has a drinking buddy in the mainstream business media, which was just as startled as all the Joe Six-Packs out there. Cramer represents the most superficial fringe of the business media (and Stewart makes a point of not wanting Cramer to be the face of his criticism), but he is a part of it nonetheless.

I think of the interview as an anomaly; no, it’s not out of character for Stewart, but, just like Cramer, he’ll be back to business as usual. This whole affair will truly be a jump-the-shark moment if Stewart decides he must bring his truth to power every night in such a fashion so as to have it both ways: he can attack, as a smart satirical commentator, and not be attacked because he’s an entertainer.

The combination of Stewart's mock-epic opening credits  ("Brawl Street: Get Ready to Buy Low and Sell Die") and stern populism is exactly my point. You’re right, Andrew, that it's pretty clear from the interview that Stewart's got real, audience-approved reasons for taking Cramer to task, but he preemptively defends himself from fatal (for a comedian) self-seriousness by pretending his interview's really no big deal; it's just some underwhelming story USA Today cooked up for its front page. And like I've said, this is disingenuous.

I guess where you and I disagree is the extent to which lambasting Jim Cramer represents "speaking truth to power." That takes bravery, whereas Stewart's interview required nothing of the sort. Were he to have Cramer's CNBC bosses on and grill them about the power they've given him, then he'd have, in my opinion, some small justification for his populist rancor. But Tucker Carlson is right: CNBC didn't cause this recession, and Cramer certainly didn't. Carlson also correctly calls Stewart a "sacred cow," which can be seen in the effusive reaction to his acknowledged ratings stunt. It's a completely no-risk decision to have a known windbag come on your show and foist blame upon him for a crisis he didn't create, and Cramer gets the assist for his Michael Steele-worthy tap dance of apology and shame.

But Carlson's an interesting example: his show got canned mere months after Stewart tore it to shreds, and CNN even admitted Stewart's criticism was a main cause. A victory for our new, 21st-century Edward R. Murrow, right? But no one could possibly say that any serious reform has happened in cable news—that the average volume of these screaming-match shows has decreased or the funding for them declined. Instead, CNN reacted to a public belittling and the uncool guy lost his job, while Stewart got hosannas for his criticism. Indeed, the man's media satire is worthwhile and necessary, but if he just keeps attacking these on-air personalities and winning out because his reach (particularly with young people, the advertising holy grail) is greater than theirs, then this strikes me less as taking on the establishment and more like a celebrity popularity contest.

One quibble. I wrote “his truth to power,” and I should have emphasized the “his”—meaning his own brand of faux-journalism.

But to look at your hypothetical for a moment: Do you actually think the CEOs of NBC would have gone on Stewart’s show? I very much doubt they’d even bother with a response. You correctly noted that Cramer and Stewart are close inverses of each other: the former is an entertainer sold as an expert, the other a smart journalist sold as an entertainer. With this interview, that parallel is pretty damningly exposed—and I really do think that’s the point, that Stewart could expose Cramer (who, let’s not forget, does receive a lot of traffic despite how buffoonish you and I have always thought he is) as being on the same level as Stewart, not vice versa.

No, network commentary hasn’t gotten any better since Stewart knocked those Crossfire fools around on live television. But I don’t see that episode or this current one as part of a zero-sum game. Stewart comes out on top—perhaps not a lot, but enough—because he was able to manipulate that divide between the commentator and the clown and score one for the network-hating, hack-loathing, somewhat-sensible public. It’s not an approach that can last forever, as we’re seeing in real time, but at least it’s doing something. Stewart’s foundational appeal is his satire, which, in order to be good, has grains of truth. This time around, though, the satire wasn’t in Stewart’s delivery, it was in the very premise of his show. The truth is still there.

Now, what would happen if this has been between Cramer and Steven Colbert?

  • The entire point of The Daily Show is that they don't accept bull shit. Thats all this interview was about too, how the financial commentators, Cramer to be specific but probably others, knew what was going on and yet continued to say sweet nothings to their audience. The only reason it go so out of hand was Cramer continued to sling the bull shit. Of course Stewart was going to follow through, if he didn't he would be disingenuous which is kind of the opposite of the show he has built. If anyone tried jumping the shark it was Cramer, trying to pull the same stunts he has for the last couple years but in a bigger arena and against more hostile foes. Watching people jump motorcycles over pools with sharks wouldn't be exciting though if people never fell in.

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  • At the same time you can't entirely lay the blame on Cramer. True he was offering advice that he had the foresight to know was bad advice... there's still more blame to be pushed. We look at these commentators as if that's where all the information starts and stops - only who we really need to be taking a look at is who is allowing this information to be fed to the public.

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  • While I'd agree that Cramer is hardly the one for Stewart to crusade against, the fact remains that after the original CNBC satire piece that Stewart ran, Cramer was the one to take the bait. He responded (and kept responding) at length to Stewart's remarks. That Stewart tried to comedically downplay the importance of having Cramer on the show, only speaks to the fact that his original piece was aimed at a much bigger foes - CNBC and financial news analysts in general.

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  • This amounts to nothing more than an entertainer entertaining us by making fun of another entertainer. I don't think Stewart's jumped the shark, though. We only watch him to be entertained, and he's more entertaining now than ever.

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  • Gotta agree with this one, although I have to say that Stewart and the Daily Show are certainly not innocent of spewing bullshit every now and then. I also sort of see Tucker Carlson's assertion that Stewart is overly partisan in his approach, but there have been a handful of Obama jokes lately.

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  • What has surprised me about this story is that most people are missing the point. I certainly agree that Cramer is a hack. That said, keep in mind that the market accepted the over-leveraged stocks for 6 plus years. Anyone who , let's say in 2004, talked about these companies being bad investments would have been pulled from the air for being wrong. No one wanted to hear it and for at least 2 more years, the person would have been pissing in the wind. In otherwords, people got what they deserved. For Jon Stewart to blame Cramer or CNBC is just crap. Amusing crap certainly, but still crap. The fundementals were there for anyone wanting to see them. The general ethos was buy stocks, like real estate, they never go down. Now people are just starting to realize this and are pissed. Stewart is entertaining, but no more knowlegable than Cramer on this one.

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  • nobody saw this? Colbert always ahead of Stewart these days. http://www.gawkk.com/jim-cramer-on-colbert-report-market-psychology-march-5-2009/discuss

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  • bahahah holy shit that was awesome. i gotta watch more colbert.

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