Jon Stewart is being widely celebrated today and Jim Cramer/CNBC widely mocked -- both rightfully so -- for Stewart's devastatingly adversarial interview of Cramer (who, just by the way, is a Marty Peretz creation). If you haven't yet seen the interview, you can and should watch it here; if you watch only one segment, watch the middle one and the beginning of the third.
Stewart focuses on the role Cramer and CNBC played in mindlessly disseminating and uncritically amplifying the false claims from the CEOs and banks which spawned the financial crisis with their blatantly untoward and often illegal practices. Here is the crux of Stewart's critique of Cramer/CNBC:
STEWART: This thing was 10 years in the making . . . . The idea that you could have on the guys from Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch and guys that had leveraged 35-1 and then blame mortgage holders, that's insane. . . .
CRAMER: I always wish that people would come in and swear themselves in before they come on the show. I had a lot of CEOs lie to me on the show. It's very painful. I don't have subpoena power. . . .
STEWART: You knew what the banks were doing and were touting it for months and months. The entire network was.
CRAMER: But Dick Fuld, who ran Lehman Brothers, called me in - he called me in when the stock was at 40 -- because I was saying: "look, I thought the stock was wrong, thought it was in the wrong place" - he brings me in and lies to me, lies to me, lies to me.
STEWART [feigning shock]: The CEO of a company lied to you?
STEWART: But isn't that financial reporting? What do you think is the role of CNBC? . . . .
CRAMER: I didn't think that Bear Stearns would evaporate overnight. I knew the people who ran it. I thought they were honest. That was my mistake. I really did. I thought they were honest. Did I get taken in because I knew them before? Maybe, to some degree. . . .
It's difficult to have a reporter say: "I just came from an interview with Hank Paulson and he lied his darn-fool head off." It's difficult. I think it challenges the boundaries.
STEWART: But what is the responsibility of the people who cover Wall Street? . . . . I'm under the assumption, and maybe this is purely ridiculous, but I'm under the assumption that you don't just take their word at face value. That you actually then go around and try to figure it out (applause).
That's the heart of the (completely justifiable) attack on Cramer and CNBC by Stewart. They would continuously put scheming CEOs on their shows, conduct completely uncritical "interviews" and allow them to spout wholesale falsehoods. And now that they're being called upon to explain why they did this, their excuse is: Well, we were lied to. What could we have done? And the obvious answer, which Stewart repeatedly expressed, is that people who claim to be "reporters" are obligated not only to provide a forum for powerful people to make claims, but also to then investigate those claims and then to inform the public if the claims are true. That's about as basic as it gets.
Today, everyone -- including media stars everywhere -- is going to take Stewart's side and all join in the easy mockery of Cramer and CNBC, as though what Stewart is saying is so self-evidently true and what Cramer/CNBC did is so self-evidently wrong. But there's absolutely nothing about Cramer that is unique when it comes to our press corps. The behavior that Jon Stewart so expertly dissected last night is exactly what our press corps in general does -- and, when compelled to do so, they say so and are proud of it.
At least give credit to Cramer for facing his critics and addressing (and even acknowledging the validity of) the criticisms. By stark contrast, most of our major media stars simply ignore all criticisms of their corrupt behavior and literally suppress it (even if the criticisms appear as major, lengthy front-page exposés in The New York Times).
Perhaps the most egregious instance of this media cowardice is that there are very few occasions when media stars were willing to address criticisms of their behavior in the run-up to the war. With very few exceptions, they have systematically ignored the criticisms that have been voiced from many sources about the CNBC-like role they played in the dissemination of pre-Iraq-War and other key Bush falsehoods. But on those very few occasions when they were forced to address these issues, their responses demonstrate that they said and did exactly what we're all going to spend today mocking and deriding Cramer and CNBC for having done -- and they continue, to this day, to do that.
One of the very few television programs ever to address the media's complicit dissemination of Bush's pre-war falsehoods was Bill Moyers' superb 2007 PBS documentary, Buying the War. While most of the media propagandists whom Moyers wanted to interview cowardly refused to answer questions, Tim Russert, to his credit, did appear. Here are the excuses which Russert offered for the general role the media played in spreading Bush administration lies and the specific role Russert played in uncritically amplifying Dick Cheney's assertions about Saddam's nuclear program. I challenge anyone to identify any differences between what Cramer/CNBC did and the justifying excuses Russert offered:
BILL MOYERS: Quoting anonymous administration officials, the Times reported that Saddam Hussein had launched a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb using specially designed aluminum tubes.
And there on Meet the Press that same morning was Vice President Cheney:
DICK CHENEY (MEET THE PRESS NBC 9/8/02): … Tubes. There's a story in the NEW YORK TIMES this morning, this is-- and I want to attribute this to the TIMES. I don't want to talk about obviously specific intelligence sources, but--
JONATHAN LANDAY, MC CLATCHYS: Now, ordinarily information like the aluminum tubes wouldn't appear. It was top secret intelligence, and the Vice President and the National Security Advisor would not be allowed to talk about this on the Sunday talk shows. But, it appeared that morning in the NEW YORK TIMES and, therefore, they were able to talk about it.
DICK CHENEY (MEET THE PRESS NBC 9/8/02): It's now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire and we have been able to intercept to prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge and the centrifuge is required to take low-grade uranium and enhance it into highly-enriched uranium which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.
BILL MOYERS: Did you see that performance?
BOB SIMON, CBS: I did.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think?
BOB SIMON: I thought it was remarkable.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
BOB SIMON: Remarkable. You leak a story, and then you quote the story. I mean, that's a remarkable thing to do. . . .
TIM RUSSERT (MEET THE PRESS), TO CHENEY: What specifically has [Saddam] obtained that you believe will enhance his nuclear development program?
BILL MOYERS: Was it just a coincidence in your mind that Cheney came on your show and others went on the other Sunday shows, the very morning that that story appeared?
TIM RUSSERT: I don't know. The NEW YORK TIMES is a better judge of that than I am.
BILL MOYERS: No one tipped you that it was going to happen?
TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean-
BILL MOYERS: The Cheney office didn't leak to you that there's gonna be a big story?
TIM RUSSERT: No. No. I mean, I don't have the-- This is, you know-- on MEET THE PRESS, people come on and there are no ground rules. We can ask any question we want. I did not know about the aluminum tubes story until I read it in the NEW YORK TIMES.
BILL MOYERS: Critics point to September Eight, 2002 and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the Administration plants a dramatic story in the NEW YORK TIMES. And then the Vice President comes on your show and points to the NEW YORK TIMES. It's a circular, self-confirming leak.
TIM RUSSERT: I don't know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the NEW YORK TIMES. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that.
My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.
BILL MOYERS: Bob Simon didn't wait for the phone to ring.
BILL MOYERS: You said a moment ago when we started talking to people who knew about aluminum tubes. What people-who were you talking to?
BOB SIMON: We were talking to people - to scientists - to scientists and to researchers, and to people who had been investigating Iraq from the start.
BILL MOYERS: Would these people have been available to any reporter who called or were they exclusive sources for 60 MINUTES?
BOB SIMON: No, I think that many of them would have been available to any reporter who called.
BILL MOYERS: And you just picked up the phone?
BOB SIMON: Just picked up the phone.
BILL MOYERS: Talked to them?
BOB SIMON: Talked to them and then went down with the cameras. . . .
WALTER PINCUS: More and more, in the media, become, I think, common carriers of Administration statements, and critics of the Administration. And we've sort of given up being independent on our own.
Compare Russert's self-defense to how and why he uncritically amplified Government lies ("I wish my phone had rung") to Cramer's pretense of victimization over the fact that CEOs lied to him and so there was nothing he could do but assume they were telling the truth ("I don't have subpoena power"). Stewart's primary criticism of Cramer applies with exactly equal force to the excuse offered by Tim "Wish My Phone Had Rung" Russert, who -- to this day -- is held up as the supposed Beacon of Tough Adversarial Journalism in America:
I'm under the assumption that you don't just take their word at face value. That you actually then go around and try to figure it out.
The point that can't be emphasized enough is that this isn't a matter of past history. Unlike Cramer -- who at least admitted fault last night and said he was "chastized" -- most establishment journalists won't acknowledge that there was anything wrong with the behavior of the press corps during the Bush years. The most they'll acknowledge is that it was confined to a couple of bad apples -- The Judy Miller Defense. But the Cramer-like journalistic behavior during that period that was so widespread and did so much damage is behavior that our press corps, to this day, believes is proper and justified.
The only other occasion when media stars were forced to address these criticisms was when Bush's own Press Secretary, Scott McClellan, wrote a book accusing the American media of being "too deferential" to the administration. In response, Russert's replacement, David Gregory, twice insisted that the criticisms directed at the press for the role they played in the run-up to the war are baseless and misguided -- most recently in an interview with Stephen Colbert (after defending the media's pre-war behavior, Gregory was promoted by NBC to his Meet the Press position). When defending the media's behavior, Gregory echoed exactly the defining mentality of Jim Cramer: pointing out when officials are lying is "not our role," said Gregory.
During that same time period, two of the three network news anchors (with Katie Couric dissenting) defended the media's pre-war behavior as well. In fact, this is what ABC's Charlie Gibson said -- echoing the Cramer view of journalism -- after Couric argued that the media failed to do its job in scrutinizing pre-war Bush claims:
It was just a drumbeat of support from the administration. And it is not our job to debate them; it's our job to ask the questions.
Identically, The Washington Post's David Ignatius actually praised the media's failure to object to pre-war Bush lies as a reflection of what Ignatius said is the media's supreme "professionalism":
In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn't create a debate on our own. And because major news organizations knew the war was coming, we spent a lot of energy in the last three months before the war preparing to cover it.
It's fine to praise Jon Stewart for the great interview he conducted and to mock and scoff at Jim Cramer and CNBC. That's absolutely warranted. But just as was true for Judy Miller (and her still-celebrated cohort, Michael Gordon), Jim Cramer isn't an aberration. What he did and the excuses he offered are ones that are embraced as gospel to this day by most of our establishment press corps, and to know that this is true, just look at what they do and say about their roles. But at least Cramer wants to appear to be contrite for the complicit role he played in disseminating incredibly destructive and false claims from the politically powerful. That stands in stark contrast to David Gregory, Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams, David Ignatius and most of their friends, who continue to be defiantly and pompously proud of the exact same role they play.
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