The feud between Jon Stewart and CNBC's Jim Cramer has been good for laughs — and ratings — but has also raised the serious question of whether the experts at TV's No. 1 financial news network should have seen the meltdown coming and warned the public.
Over the past two weeks, Stewart's "Daily Show" on Comedy Central has ridiculed CNBC personalities, including Cramer, the manic host of "Mad Money," by airing video clips of them making exuberantly bullish statements about the market and various investment banks shortly before they collapsed.
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Stewart has charged that people at CNBC knew what was going on behind the scenes on Wall Street but didn't tell the public. He has accused CNBC anchors and pundits of abandoning their journalistic duties and acting like cheerleaders for the market.
"In a tremendous boom period, they covered the boom and people wanted to believe in the boom," said Andrew Leckey, a former CNBC anchor and now president of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University. "They didn't uncover the lies that were told to them. Nobody did. But they should be held to a higher responsibility."
But Don Hodges, chairman of Hodges Capital Management in Dallas, said he doesn't fault CNBC for not seeing the bust coming.
"I'm not sure that anybody had seen it coming," he said. "I've listened to all of the so-called experts, and it's obvious that everybody is very confused."
Cramer, for his part, appeared on "The Daily Show" on Thursday and was interrogated Mike Wallace-style by Stewart. Cramer acknowledged that he made mistakes but said that he and CNBC weren't alone.
Like other Wall Street professionals, Joe Saluzzi, co-head of equity trading at Themis Trading LLC, said it was plain CNBC was bullish during the run-up in the economy over the past few years. But he said his job was to do his homework and not to make decisions based strictly on what he heard on TV.
The questions raised about CNBC are similar to those journalists faced about what was reported during the months before the Iraq War.
CNBC spokesman Brian Steel noted that the network "produces more than 150 hours of live television a week that includes more than 850 interviews in the service of exposing all sides of every critical financial and economic issue." He added: "We are proud of our record."
Comedian vs. showmanAll of the cable news networks recognize the growing popularity of shows with a strong point of view. But is there too much talking and not enough reporting?
"They need some adult supervision about what people get to pop off about over there, even if it is opinion," said Dean Starkman, managing editor of Columbia Journalism Review's The Audit, which focuses on the business press. "They need to look into the mirror and see how close they are intellectually and emotionally with the people they cover. They need to sit back and get some critical distance."
Some CNBC defenders have accused Stewart of taking some of the video clips out of context, or blowing them out of proportion.
"A politician stumbles over himself," MSNBC "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough said on his own program. "Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response. And you know what? It's really easy to be a comedian and take those cheap shots."
Some at CNBC believed, at least prior to Cramer's appearance on Thursday, that the controversy was ultimately good for the network because of the attention it drew. Some questioned whether the business professionals who make up the bulk of CNBC's daytime audience would be affected by Stewart's criticisms.
From Feb. 19 through March 9, CNBC averaged 361,000 viewers during the business day, compared with 328,000 the three weeks before, according to Nielsen Media Research. During the same period, the page views on CNBC's Web site went up 22 percent from 13.1 million to 15.9 million.
Similarly, a video clip of Stewart's original criticism of CNBC last week has been seen more than anything else the show has put online this year.
"Stewart's a comedian and Cramer is a showman," said Robert Howell, professor at Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business. "If anybody takes seriously anything that (Cramer) says, they're stupid."