Inadvertently Committing Journalism

Nope – haven’t figured it out yet – sorry. And it’s been years. Back on July 27, 2003 – six years ago – there were those remarks by the President – who was standing next to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in a photo opportunity, as documented by a White House Press Release on July 14, 2003 2:11 P.M. EDT –

 

The fundamental question is did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region. I firmly believe the decisions we made will make America more secure and the world more peaceful.

 

This seemed at the time extraordinary, although now it seems just quaint. We were to understand that all the news folks got it flat-out wrong – we had watched that stuff from the UN, that Blix fellow and his team were in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction and coming back to New York every few weeks to talk about what they had and had not found. Now it seemed that had never happened. No UN inspectors ever went to Iraq. They were never allowed in. So the press has been irresponsible. Did CNN and the rest fabricate this whole thing? Our government went to war precisely because Blix was never allowed to make those trips CNN and the rest were reporting. He wasn’t ever allowed in. Damn. Who knew?

 

Some of us thought it was the job of the press to say the president got it wrong – facts are facts. It’s not like you had to call him a liar, saying he was deliberately deceiving the public, or had to say he was confused and dangerously incompetent, which would make him unfit for office. But at least you could say, nope, those were not the facts of the matter – people could come to whatever conclusions they liked. But it seemed to some of us journalism had something to do both dutifully reporting what key people say, and, along with that, laying out the facts of the matter.

 

Back then, Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, commented

 

Was this a Bush “lie” or a Bush “goof”? An argument can be made for both sides. Technically, he’s obviously wrong. UN inspectors did obviously go in and then leave shortly before the bombing started. On the other hand, he was probably thinking of that time before the UN resolution when Iraq actually was refusing to allow the inspectors in, at least unconditionally.

 

As for the question of what the media is to do about Bush’s comments: Nothing much.

 

Although people think journalists are always there, ready to jump all over slips like this, that’s pretty much a misconception. Think about it. Although you may think you do, you actually rarely see news media, on their own authority, running around pointing out the lies of public officials. What you actually see is news media running around reporting on some political opponents’ claims about the other guy’s lies. Try as it might, objective journalism has yet to find a way to independently expose what may or may not be “lies” and even just “goofs” without appearing, maybe with some justification, like they’re just pimping for some special interest or political ideology. …

 

So we let such things pass. If you want to know what’s really going on, well, you now know the news is not the place to find out – we’ve learned. Journalists report what key people say is going on, and what key people, who disagree with the first set of people who say what is going on, say is really, honestly, going on. And journalists don’t take sides – that wouldn’t be objective journalism, just letting their own opinions color things. And they don’t say what matches the facts – it’s too easy to get used, as you can be fed bad facts, after all. If you want to know what’s really going on, well, you guess – your best guess based on what has been reported to you, which are contradictory and mutually exclusive views on most every matter. Beyond the earth is round and the sky is blue, you’re on your own – although those two things may be in dispute too. Fox News likes to say “We Report, You Decide” – they don’t mean that of course, but they’ve captured the essence of how we’ve come to know the news. Trust nothing. CNN says they are the “Most Trusted Name in News” – perhaps they are, but the bar is rather low these days.

 

The problem is that people always want to know what is really going on, beyond being told of a specific event, like the unprovoked attack on our naval ships in the Gulf of Tonkin that kicked off the our massive involvement in the war in Vietnam way back when. Okay, bad example – but you do want to know what’s really going on. And the sense you’re being fed, as truth, what may or may not be true, is frustrating – and even more frustrating when you’re fed endless he-said, she-said reports and told to go fish, as the truth is illusive, or something.

 

It is little wonder people have no use for the news, as it is presented now. There’s lots of other stuff on television – sports, American Idol, old movies, or if you’re in Europe, that Eurovision thing. Why bother?

 

Of course the news has been useful to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and Comedy Central. Two wildly popular shows that skewer the news have made a bundle for Comedy Central. Add South Park and you have the trifecta for people who want to know what is really going on, through ridicule of what we’re told is going on. Colbert nailed what we usually get – Truthiness.

 

Stewart and Colbert have tapped into the mounting frustration anyone who wants to know anything feels. And things really came to a head on March 12, when Jon Stewart interviewed Jim Cramer, the host of Mad Money, the most popular investment show on the most widely-watched business channel CNBC. Cramer says he tells you how things really work, and how to manage your money in these chaotic times – and who are bad buys and who are the good guys.

 

Stewart destroyed him, although he didn’t put up much of a fight – as discussed here. The video is here, with a link to the Stewart segment that started the controversy – if that’s what this was.

 

CNBC was not pleased. See TVNewser – “A TVNewser tipster tells us MSNBC producers were asked not to incorporate the Jim Cramer/Jon Stewart interview into their shows today. In fact, the only time it came up on MSNBC was during the White House briefing…” (at the daily briefing Gibbs said Obama watched the interview and “enjoyed it immensely”). Cramer did open his show telling his views to watch an important clip from the day before – and it was a clip of him making banana cream pie on Martha Stewart’s show.

 

As for other fallout, see Gregg Levine – Battle of the Network Stars: Street.com CEO Quits. Stewart ran a clip of Cramer and this guy discussing illegal market manipulation, as a good thing, as no one ever got caught and you could make a lot of money spreading lies. He saw the writing on the wall and bailed.

 

And there was Jim Newell and the normally snarky Wonkette, with Jon Stewart, Jim Cramer Make America Feel Pleasantly Uncomfortable:

 

“Devastating” is just not the right word. It’s hard to remember the last time a teevee interview left us in such a state of stunned silence. As is often the case, Stewart interrupts his guest way too frequently given the breadth of his questions. But you can’t just cast this aside as some popular fake news comedy show host pulling a stunt for ratings. It’s the most ruthlessly honest, sobering conversation – from both sides – you’re likely to see on any show. Good. And note the lack of shouting.

 

You never see such stuff at Wonkette. And see this at The Assimilated Negro – Is Jon Stewart More Important than Obama?

 

This was billed as an “interview”, but it was more like Alpha-Jon peeing and then lying all over Cramer in a show of dominance. If Jim Cramer’s wife has a child in nine months, the father will be Jon Stewart. You won’t even need a DNA test.

 

There’s more of that, but the real thrust of most comments was Stewart was committing something like journalism, or so said Steve Benen at Political Animal:

 

Watching the evisceration, I couldn’t help but wonder why it takes a comedian on Comedy Central to do the kind of interview the non-fake news shows ought to be doing. When the media establishment marvels at Jon Stewart’s popularity, they tend to think it’s his humor. It’s not. It’s because he calls “bullsh*t” when most major media players won’t. He did so last night, and it made for important viewing.

 

James Fallows is more direct – It’s true: Jon Stewart has become Edward R. Murrow.

 

Andrew Sullivan doesn’t go that far, but does agree:

 

I watched the Daily Show with growing shock last night. Did you expect that? I expected a jolly and ultimately congenial discussion, after some banter. What Cramer walked into was an ambush of anger. He crumbled from the beginning. From then on, with the almost cruel broadcasting of his earlier glorifying of financial high-jinks, you almost had to look away. This was, in my view, a real cultural moment. It was a storming of the Bastille. It was, as Fallows notes, journalism.

 

But he defines journalism as active, not passive, after all:

 

Stewart – that little comic with the Droopy voice for Lieberman – is actually becoming an accidental activist. Why he matters, is why South Park matters. He, like Matt and Trey, do not leave aside their own profession from scrutiny: they have the actual balls to take it on. There is a cloying familiarity among many cable show hosts and television personalities. We all have to get along, even though some of us may believe that others of us are very much part of the problem, rather than the solution. And what Stewart has done is rip off that little band-aid of faux solidarity for a modicum of ethical and moral accountability.

 

Folks in the news business might wonder if it is their job to provide ethical and moral accountability – reporting what you think people want to know, as best you can figure out, is hard enough. But Sullivan wants more:

 

Now, I know Jim Cramer a little. The reason he crumbled last night, I think, is because deep down, he knows Stewart’s right. He isn’t that television clown all the way down. And deeper down, he knows it’s not all a game – not now they’ve run off with grandpa’s retirement money.

 

It’s not enough anymore, guys, to make fantastic errors and then to carry on authoritatively as if nothing just happened. You will be called on it. In some ways, the blogosphere is to MSM punditry what Stewart is to Cramer: an insistent and vulgar demand for some responsibility, some moral and ethical accountability for previous decisions and pronouncements.

 

Sullivan wants more of this. But another way of looking at this comes from a man who knows both of them, Chris Smith, in New York Magazine, with this:

 

I was proud of both of them. Cramer stood up and took the abuse, in person, which he didn’t need to do. His hedge-fund hypocrisy was stomach-turning, though not surprising to anyone who’s followed his entire career, but Cramer does seem genuinely chastened. We’ll see if he follows through on his promise to make his CNBC show more skeptical, more like his print work, or if he’ll at least ditch the TV ads that tout his infallibility.

 

But what Cramer and CNBC do will always be showbiz, to a large extent. What Stewart did last night was very, very important. Not so much because he voiced – articulately, backed by evidence, and with real feeling – the rage of millions. It was important because Stewart reminded journalists of the standards they’re supposed to live up to: to call bullshit, no matter the trouble it may cause them professionally. Reporters are generally compromised already, to some degree, but the conflicts will only get worse as job security in the mainstream media continues to evaporate. It’s going to take more courage to fight The Man, but it has never been more important. Some bloggers are stepping into the void already, to be sure. But Stewart showed last night that there’s no substitute for having a big, well-funded megaphone.

 

Is it the reporter’s job to call bullshit? That seems highly romanticized – like in some old movie about crusading journalists of yore. And Smith cites Alessandra Stanley, the television critic for the New York Times, here “reviewing” the show “as if it were primarily entertainment” and “suggesting that Stewart’s indignation is a pose, or messianic.”

 

Smith adds this:

 

Stewart says he wants to go back to making fart noises as soon as possible. If that happens as a sign of the country’s return to economic and democratic health, great. But what’s left of the journalism business needs him to continue calling bullshit on us.

 

David Corn at Mother Jones was also thinking along those lines:

 

Cramer was acknowledging that CNBC had aired oodles of interviews during which corporate execs had not told the truth. He insisted that he had been tough on Bush administration Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. Referring to Paulson, he said, “I’ve called him a liar… Should we all call them liars? I’m a commentator… 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.”

 

See – Cramer does understand modern journalism. There are boundaries. Stewart’s reply was this – “I am under the assumption – and maybe this is purely ridiculous – but I’m under the assumption that that we don’t just take their word at face value, that you actually then go around and try to figure it out.”

 

David Corn buys into that – “figure out if they are telling the truth or not – and, if they are not, you do call them liars.”

 

The folks at CNN might tell Corn it’s not ever that simple, although CNN did do the legwork to prove Obama was not now and never had been a Muslim, even if it was blindingly obvious.

 

David Corn just comes from a different place:

 

What’s my interest in this slice of the titanic Cramer v. Stewart battle? Well, I once wrote a book immoderately titled, The Lies of George W. Bush. More recently, I wrote a piece noting that the MSM was far too hesitant after 9/11 to call Bush out on his falsehoods – particular on the misrepresentations (or, lies) that greased the way to the Iraq war. That article noted that some MSMers still recoil from the task of branding a politician or government official a truth-teller or liar. Though Stewart concluded this exchange by quipping that he would prefer to be making fart-noise jokes than to be policing financial news networks, it was heartening to see him advance this simple point: if the media doesn’t assail leaders (financial or political) who lie, then those leaders can get away with almost anything.

 

But then Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo points out that CNBC isn’t a news channel:

 

To the best of my knowledge CNBC is not part of the news division at NBC. It’s part of the division that runs cable broadcasting. MSNBC is also one of their cable channels; but they report up through the news division. As you can see here, CNBC President Mark Hoffman reports to NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker, not Steve Capus, the president of NBC News. So they’re in with Bravo and the rest. And they’re under no pressure from the News division to provide editorial objectivity or balance or any editorial standards at all. And I mean, half of it is Jim Cramer and Larry Kudlow. So that’s pretty obvious.

 

And CNBC is special in another way:

 

CNBC’s business model is not reporting news for average folks or even average investors. While the channel makes good money, it ratings are actually pretty low. The whole model is based on who the audience is – brokers, financial professionals and folks with big money on Wall Street. So of course it’s heavily biased toward that viewership.

 

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Big dollar investors deserve their own cable channel too.

 

The problem is, of course, these days people are hungry for news of what is really going on, and, as Marshall says, as “more of the ‘news’ moves into CNBC’s ‘space’ it’s worth considering how deeply skewed their reporting is.” But don’t expect too much of them.

 

Fester at Newshoggers.com, however, sees clear institutional failure:

 

Both the Daily Show and Colbert Report have a bullshit calling functioning that only exists because the other institutional players that normatively should be calling bullshit have either been co-opted, run out of business or forgot that was there function. This institutional failure is widespread and it is why there is such a large market for someone to call bullshit. It is not being done elsewhere. And this institutional failure is widespread across America.

 

His view of what should be done may be questionable – the result of too many movies about crusading journalists – but he cites Nate Silver on the 2008 General Social Survey indicating that “the past thirty years, institutional trust and therefore institutional legitimacy has taken a beaten” – so what happened here had to happen:

 

This is the greater context in which the Daily Show thrives – it has expanded into this gap of trust as there is a massive divergence between what people are seeing with their own eyes, and what people are hearing from the elite perspective.

 

On this matter, there is also Glenn Greenwald:

 

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 to inform the public if the claims are true. That’s about as basic as it gets….

 

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.”…

 

Rick, the News Guy from Atlanta, said that too, but Greenwald disagrees:

 

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….

 

So the Daily Show will live long and prosper as long as the news industry does what it does – just report what was said. That too is profitable. And somewhere, between the two, you might know what’s really going, or you might not.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in CNBC, Jim Cramer, Jon Stewart, Journalism, Journalism as Entertainment, Objective Journalism, Press Responsibility, Responsible Journalism, Stewart versus Cramer, Trusting One News Source over Another, Truthiness. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Inadvertently Committing Journalism

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    So I asked my dentist the other day why she didn’t warn me about the upcoming credit crunch, and she says to me, “But that’s not my job!” To which I replied, “Yeah, sure! That’s the same thing that Jim Cramer guy says. You people are all alike!”

    But of course, as Josh Marshall helpfully points out, Jim Cramer is no more a journalist than my dentist is, he’s just a stock picker (with maybe too much schtick) who happens to have his own cable TV show. Since it never occurred to me that anyone thought of those folks on CNBC as serious journalists, I was slow to pick up on what this Cramer-Stewart controversy was all about. To me, it’s almost like Whoppi Goldberg on The View scolding someone at QVC, the shopping channel — maybe fun stuff, but what’s all this got to do with journalism?

    So the problem is that we Americans have to rely on our comedians to do the journalists’ jobs for them? Does this mean the Daily Show will soon start staffing bureaus in Baghdad and Moscow, and try to sneak correspondents and crews into Darfur? That, after all, is what journalists do, and if the comics want all the credit for the so-called “journalism” they’re engaged in, they might try actually doing some of the costly and dangerous dirty work that comes with the territory — something more risky than coming up with something bitingly witty to say between video clips they lift from someone else.

    It need also be pointed out that the reason guests come on Stewart and Colbert and Letterman and Saturday Night Live is because these shows are comedy shows, not news shows — if, for some reason, Cramer had known it wasn’t going to be all fun and games, but instead some serious drubbing he was getting himself into, he probably wouldn’t have agreed to go on.

    Which is to say, sooner or later, Jon Stewart and his comedic counterparts will face the same problem that serious journalists face when booking interviews; nobody with a brain would bother agreeing to come on a show where he will have his ass handed to him.

    Look, it’s not that I don’t like Jon Stewart’s take on things (although I must admit I tend to like the ones that make it to YouTube more than the bits I catch live), but his job is easier than your everyday MSM reporter in at least three ways: (1) He’s allowed to give his opinion, no matter how ill-informed it is; (2) He’s allowed to be funny, no matter how unfunny he sometimes is; and (3) He’s allowed to be wrong. I mean, given the number of times he’s right on the mark with his gags, we forgive him all those other times when he falls flat on his face.

    You want to see journalists calling people out on their bullshit? Go to Fox News. Bill O’Reilly does this all the time, and so even do some of the Fox anchors. You might not have thought of these people doing what Jon Stewart does, but that’s likely because Jon’s viewpoint is closer to your (and my) own. Another example is Lou Dobbs on CNN, who has been known from time to time to have someone on his show for the sole purpose of embarrassing them for not agreeing with him about illegal immigration being America’s only real concern. You may not agree with Dobbs, but he is indeed a journalist, not at all a comic, doing what all these Stewart-Colbert fans say journalists ought to be doing.

    Although once again, it needs to be pointed out that both Dobbs and O’Reilly (and especially O’Reilly) create for themselves the dilemma of not being able to persuade guests to come on their shows — since, when it comes to debating the host, the deck is stacked and the house almost always wins. (Witness Barney Frank’s appearance on O’Reilly recently.)

    In fact, the only reason any of us even heard of Bush’s miss-statement about the inspectors was because reporters did their job of reporting it to the public. Why didn’t the press make a big deal about it? Because even after hearing about it, the public itself didn’t rise up and brandish pitchforks and torches. To me, it was a slam-dunk indictment of the failure of George Bush’s presidency, but apparently to the population at large, it was just another goofy Bushism that will surely be included in somebody’s upcoming book, but which seems to add to or subtract nothing from our already dire national plight. But to anyone who expected the press to fan this little flame into a house on fire, I say be careful what sort of a media you wish for.

    As I think I mentioned in a previous comment, if all our journalists stopped reporting the news and instead began throwing shoes at it, who would be there to tell us what the hell’s going on?

    Rick

  2. Claudine Zafran says:

    Right on !
    And don’t forget “Le show” with Harry Shearer on sunday morning he will make you smile reporting pathetic news !
    And by the way the famous shoe, made the shoes famous, and Hollywood bought 3 pairs ……???????

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