Popping the CNBC Bubble

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll likely know that I’m a big fan of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.  Although the shows are on a major cable channel owned by a multimedia conglomerate, few texts out there do a more effective job of offering a form of popular media criticism, equipping viewers to become more attentive media critics.  And arguably, in some of the stronger clips, these shows provide at least some means for digging into the almost impossibly vast archive of cable news images, slowing the relentless stream of talk down to make connections between ideas.  In this sense, Stewart and Colbert have an affinity with some of the better practices of the video media critics working for and with Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films to provide a popular (and very funny) form of media criticism.

With that in mind, I’ve been blown away by the recent series of Daily Show segments in which Stewart and his writers have been sending up the financial news industry for their culpability in the ongoing financial crisis.  One of Stewart’s primary targets, Jim Cramer, is an especially large target due to predictions (about Bear Strearns, about the real estate market) that have proven to be spectacularly wrong.  In response, Cramer (rather unwisely) dismissed Stewart as “just” a comedian, engaging himself in a battle of wits with some of the best TV writers out there, essentially digging himself deeper into a hole by going on virtually every channel NBC owns, a move that Stewart mocks by eiting himself into a couple of shows owned by Viacom (MTV’s The Hills and Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer).

Nicholas Graham has been covering these ideas for the last few days for Alternet and has a really sharp read. Stewart’s original target was Rick Santelli, who referred to people who defaulted on their mortgages as “losers,” ignoring years of bad policy decisions by the government and banking industry and the investment frenzy created by networks and news organizations such as CNBC.  Cramer responded in a number of venues, most notably on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, leading to Stewart’s more recent response (available via Graham).  I’ll be interested to see how Stewart handles Cramer as a guest, but I think we need more commentary like Stewart’s, not less, in order to make sense of this financial crisis and the logic that made it possible.

Update: I can’t resist a quick pointer to this supremely bizarre attack on Stewart from Big Hollywood. I normally wouldn’t bother, but it’s Spring Break, and for the first time in a while, I don’t have any looming deadlines.  Short version BH’s Dan Gifford suggests that Stewart is “manipulating” viewers through his use of humor to criticize Rick Santelli’s now-famous CNBC rant.  Gifford quotes a passage from Stewart’s monologue that leaves him mystified as to why the Daily Show audeince would laugh:

He had done some critical reporting on the hundreds of billions of dollars of bailout money going to failed banks, failed auto makers and insurers of failed banks and auto makers (laughter).

The laughter isn’t, as Gifford oddly surmises, coming from the idea that Santelli was critical of the bailout money going to “fat cats.”  The key to me seems to be the characterization of Santelli’s work as a reporter, the smug self-righteousness that he knows all the answers, a point that is illustrate quite vividly in the montage video featuring Santelli and Cramer authoritatively making predictions that were painfully wrong.  And while I’d never take investment advice from CNBC, I’d imagine lots of other poeple did, so Cramer and Santelli’s smug authorittiveness eserves to be taken down a notch or two.

Gifford goes on to argue that Stewart’s humor–like humor in general–is born out of hostility.  I’ll leave the full analysis of the use of parody and satire and their relationship to power to those who know the field better than I do.  But given how much money this bailout is going to cost American taxpayers, their children (and probably grandchildren), I think we’ve got a right to be hostile.  And yes, Santelli’s tone in the rant seemed to imply that we need to bailout the big guys while drawing a line in the sand at helping individual mortgage holders.  It’s not a stretch to see why Stewart’s audience might be angry.

Finally, Gifford uses his anti-Stewart rant to undercut the relative sophistication of Daily Show audiences with regards to political news.  Citing an Annenberg study that showed that Daily Show viewers knew more about the news than FoxNews watchers, Gifford then–in language that some might regard as “humorous” with a mix of hostility–dismisses the study by suggesting that the Annenberg study’s bar for media literacy is set way too low.  I’m willing to go along with that.  I desperately wish U.S. citizens were better informed about news and politics.  The country would be better for it. So, why do FoxNews viewers know even less about the political world than their Daily Show counterparts? And what does that tell us about our “real” newsgathering channels?

Update 2: I’ll try to do a longer update tomorrow about Jon Stewart’s interview with Jim Cramer, which I think reached, and maybe surpassed, Stewart’s Crossfire appearance.  As a number of Tweeps pointed out, Stewart ripped the network to shreds for failing to be accountable to its audience and to the investors who have been encouraged to view the stock market as a long-term investment plan.  Yes, it may have been self-righteous, but it was the most satisfying thirty minutes of television I’ve seen in a long time.  For those of you who missed it, Yahoo has an early summary of the episode, and I’ll link to the full video tomorrow when it’s available.

Final update: Here’s the full episode.

15 Comments »

  1. Alisa Perren Said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

    I had falsely believed that with Obama coming into office, the political comedy shows would have greater difficulty generating amusing material. I guess the meltdown of an entire economic system is good for news satire, at least.

  2. Chuck Said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

    Yeah, given that The Daily Show and Colbert have always satirized political media s much as politics itself, there will always be plenty of material, I’d imagine. But, sadly enough for my 401k, the economy has been comedy gold (it has also been good for box office, but that’s another story).

  3. Tama Leaver Said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

    Hey Chuck, I’d fallen behind with my Daily Show viewing, but I enjoyed the clips from Stewart’s NBC takedowns immensely. Stewart always reminds me of a talented, angry blogger, mixing clips and pointing out the many errors of segments of the mainstream media – perhaps that why he appeals to the blogosphere so much? :)

  4. Chuck Said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

    Yeah, he’s an excellent commentator, fantastic at deconstructing the words and images of those in authority, and like most bloggers, he fashions himself as an outsider to those in power, even while recognizing that he is, in fact, part of one of the most powerful media conglomerates on the planet, so I think there is a clear affinity with bloggers (a position that goes back to at least 2003, when Stewart ripped Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala apart on Crossfire).

  5. Jayhawh Said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    I dunno, it seems kind of confusing that people keep saying The Daily Show is a comedy show. Every time I see it, it’s always Jon doing something extremely self serious, or showing clips of congress, followed by some mugging, and then howls of audience laughter at things that usually aren’t that funny, not because they’re unfunny jokes, but most of the time they aren’t actual jokes, just observations about how stupid Bush was or how he screwed up something else that day. It may have been right, but it wasn’t really “comedy.”

    That and it was overwhelmingly creepy how fans of the show took the show so seriously, it seemed to evolve into a “here’s what you should think” show instead of actual news parody. But I guess that’s just me, I liked Norm Macdonald’s Weekend Update (which was a real news parody).

  6. Chuck Said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    To some extent, humor is subjective, but here’s my reading. I read Stewart as mocking the self-importance of politicians and the network news media. Given that Bush and the Republicans have been in power for most of the last decade, it makes sense that he would mock them. He’s also held up Pelosi and Reid for ridicule, something they often deserve. I’ve never needed The Daily Show to tell me what to think.

  7. Jayhawh Said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    When Jon has a guest on in order to go into a long segment of literally jokeless debate, I don’t see much “mocking” going on there. I see a completely serious political pundit who needs a cheering crowd to vindicate him in all things and truncate dissent in his guests if they do have the misfortune of dissenting. I can’t imagine anything or anyone more humorless than that. But when confronted on any issue, his excuse that he is a comedian, and that his show is “not a real news show.” Again, I don’t see any mocking in that. I see a scramble for excuses. If Bill O’Reilly said that his show was a comedy show, people would say he’s trying to avoid the criticism of his politics, if you can imagine such a thing. The unintentional irony is almost funny, but more sad.

  8. Alejandro Said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    Conservatives thought that being out of office meant that Jon Stewart and his kind would now make Obama and the Democrats the object of their satire… Not quite. Now it’s not the White House who needs to be brought down a peg or two, but those who dare criticise the White House.

  9. Chuck Said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

    Jayhawh, Every participant in political conversations seeks to communicate in situations that are most advantageous. O’Reilly, Hannity, and others have been doing it for years. In traditional definitions, The Daily Show is not a news show. The comedians who work on the show are not reporters. They don’t gather facts or engage in investigative reporting. It is a commentary show. Again, I read the show as primarily a commentary on the discourses of the powerful and the way that they help to preserve the status of the powerful in part by dumbing down political discourse. If that looks to you like a critique of conservatism, then so be it.

    Alejandro, I don’t quite follow your comment, but I’d suggest that some conservatives are ripe for criticism, including those, such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who criticized earmarks even while putting 37 of them into the appropriations bill. Worse, as Stewart illustrated recently (and as others have pointed out), earmarks account for less than 2% of the federal budget, suggesting that they are, in fact, a distraction from some of our real financial and budgetary problems.

    Again, to conflate what Stewart and Colbert are doing with the work of real news organizations misses the point and distracts us from their real task as social commentators who focus on how news and official discourse are constructed.

  10. troyn Said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    until stewart actually deigns to make fun of the new potus in a substantive way he will have no credibility with me. criticizing a liberal obama supporter like cramer, who dared to criticize bho, only goes to show that all stewart continues to do is carry the water for the current administration, not give us honest, funny, comedy.

  11. Chuck Said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    Maybe Stewart thinks some of Obama’s ideas make sense? I don’t know who Jim Cramer supported in the 2008 election, but I’ve always thought he was a bit ridiculous and certainly not someone whom I’d trust with a single dollar of investment money.

  12. jao Said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 2:02 am

    not a big fan of the faily shit, jon stupid can’t deliver anything wittier than dumb faces and noises, the fact that his political views are repulsive is part of the reason

  13. Cato Said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 2:52 am

    “I read the show as primarily a commentary on the discourses of the powerful and the way that they help to preserve the status of the powerful in part by dumbing down political discourse.”

    First of all, I would contend that Stewart is doing his part to dumb down political discourse. His act is a media shell game — on the one hand, he’s supposedly the top news source for the college crowd, a virtual oracle to the bong-hitting cognoscenti; but dare to point out any inaccuracies and obfuscations, and suddenly it’s “How dare you take me seriously, I’m only a comedian, an entertainer!”

    Second, if Stewart is truly a commentary on the discourses of the powerful, then I expect him, any day now, actually to, you know, criticize the powerful — i.e., the Obama administration and the Democratic Party. They control every lever of power now. As such, we should see his sarcastic targets tilt from about 90-10 GOP-Dem, to the opposite. Hell, I’d even take 40-60. But does anybody honestly expect that to happen?

    I suspect, however, that you (Chuck) and Stewart have no problem with the powerful, so long as they agree with your point of view. It is the people who disagree with you (and, I would argue, Stewart), powerful or not, that you’re most incensed about.

    Obviously, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Virtually everybody thinks that way. What I find distasteful, and grossly misleading, is how you and people like Stewart pretend to be impartial. It’s not the powerful you dislike. It’s one side in the grand debate, whether they’re in power or not. Go ahead, admit it. Quit squirting black ink in a frantic effort to make us believe otherwise.

  14. Jayhawh Said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 6:07 am

    So Stewart isn’t a comedian, he’s just another unfunny propagandist. Sounds like he’s just a Bill O’Reilly without falafals.

  15. Chuck Said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:30 am

    Jayhawh, say what you will about Stewart, I don’t see how it’s possible to characterize what he does as propaganda. Calling for the news media to provide more thorough coverage of the financial markets in order to protect investors? Asking Cramer to reconcile CNBC’s advertising (“Cramer’s got your back”) with their actions? Hardly the stuff of Joe Goebbels.

    Cato, you raise a valid point about my language choice here (the vague references the “the powerful”), but this episode illustrates my main point about Stewart functioning as a media critic and satirist who can point out the hypocrisies of public figures and the failures of news reporting. I do feel bad for Cramer for getting caught in the firing line, and my sense was that Stewart was trying not to direct his attack at him (“this song ain’t about you”). In fact, it seemed clear to me that Cramer recognized his network’s culpability in fostering a climate that allowed these things to happen.

    Essentially Stewart called for reporters not to take the word of CEOs (or other public figures) at face value and suggested that value should come from hard work. Shouldn’t anyone, conservative or liberal, share those values?

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