Monday, March 16, 2009

In Comedy Begins Responsibilities

One wonders how Jon Stewart must feel now that his encounter with Jim Cramer has prompted positive reaction from the White House and, as a corollary, BBC reporting on the White House reacting to Cramer's appearance on The Daily Show. Sadly, however, the BBC seems to have fallen into one of the favorite traps of American media, viewing the program as a "debate" and then trying to assess "who won." This misses the point. Satire is not about truth "winning" over falsehood or deception. It is about using humor to expose flaws, thus making others more aware, lest they be victimized by those flaws.

In this case, as the BBC report made clear, Stewart's real target was the abundance of flaws in how business news is reported on television, particularly on cable and, more specifically, in all-business-news-all-the-time channels like CNBC. Cramer was little more than a symptom of a far more dangerous disease, which is the risk that CNBC offers little more than entertainment disguised as business reporting. The irony, of course, is that The Daily Show has never concealed that it is only offering satire; but, through their satire, one often gets more "hard news" information than one gets from a channel like Headline News, whose original concept of summarizing world news in twenty minutes has now been stomped into oblivion by its own stable of opinion-mongers.

Even if this was not a real debate, there is much to be learned from Cramer's inability to hold up his side of the conversation. However, his poor performance on The Daily Show does not necessarily constitute poor performance in explaining business news to his viewers. He may have fallen into the same trap that closes on other guests, not only Stewart's but also Stephen Colbert's. This is the temptation to try to compete with the host in the arena of comedy. (I have a personal friend, whose wit I almost always appreciate, who tried to engage that wit while being interviewed by Colbert; and he was reduced to mincemeat in short order.) It is also possible that Cramer went in front of the Comedy Central cameras without thinking about whether or not he should have his own message for the viewers, something like, "You've had your fun, but Mad Money is still one of the better sources of investment advice." Of course, we should also recognize that Cramer's messages on CNBC are products of a team of writers, rather than Cramer's personal wisdom, just as Stewart's rapid-fire wit also relies on a team of writers (even if Stewart deserves full credit for his excellent delivery). In other words both of these guys are performers dependent on their script writers. However, Stewart does not pretend to be anything other than a performer. Is Cramer anything other than a performer? Personally, I do not think so, which is why I do not need someone like Stewart to warn me about the hazards of watching CNBC!

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