The Jon Stewart/Jim Cramer confrontation on The Daily Show is being widely compared to that between Edward R. Murrow and Joe McCarthy over alleged Communist subversion in the Army. The analogy is considerably less crazy than it first appears. Sure, Murrow was Murrow, but there was a shlocky side to the Great Man. On Person to Person he would visit the homes of stars and suck up to them with a cloying mien that might impress Barbara Walters. And while the celebrity-stroking aspect of Murrow’s career does not comport in our minds with the brave, tough-minded reporter who covered war, famine and the like, it probably helped build much of his audience and garner the trust of those who did not follow national affairs closely.
Ditto Mr. Stewart. Yes, he makes funny faces and starred in Death to Smoochy, but, along with Stephen Colbert, his ability to entertain is what lends him his authority in the first place. Think about it. Why should we care who this or that newspaper publisher endorses for president? Answer: we only care because we care about the editorial influence on the audience. Presidential candidates don’t go seeking the endorsement of high school newspapers because, well, dude, kids don’t vote. Stewart and Colbert have the audience that powerful people want to reach; yet at the same time, these two men do not participate in a pack mentality, and that’s what makes them politically invaluable (and at this point, irreplaceable).
Their “we’re just comedians” protestations notwithstanding, both men appear to take this part of their job no less seriously than they do the funny parts. It cannot be mere coincidence that they are responsible for three of the most important/cathartic media moments of the past decade. Stewart pretty much ended Crossfire all by himself and retired the foolish notion that a left/right food fight leads one any closer to truth. Next, Colbert shamed and exposed the pathetic performance of the White House press corps with his brilliant after-dinner speech at the correspondents’ dinner. And now Stewart, first by eviscerating the coverage of CNBC and second by forcing Jim Cramer to own up to his on-air hucksterism, has revealed the lie at the center of most business coverage (and just about all cable news).
It’s a sad–almost terrifying–comment on the state of the American media that we have come to rely on these two funnymen to tell us the truth about our country in the same way we relied on Murrow in the ’50s and Walter Cronkite in the ’60s. But as the mainstream media keep reminding us, albeit unintentionally, the MSM’s groupthink is invulnerable to reality. Like the president who remained so popular with them for so long, it literally takes a hurricane and a biblical-style flood to get them to pay attention to events that do not conform to the agreed-upon national narrative.
To a certain degree, CNBC was low-hanging fruit. It’s not merely the comically bad advice the network gives or the constant stream of partisan, pro-Republican attacks it levels at President Obama and the Democratic Congress. It’s also CNBC’s eagerness to embrace the sources it knows to be lying. So enthralled by the cachet of what Michael Lewis long ago defined as the “big swinging dicks” of Wall Street, and entirely dependent on its sources to provide the guest spots it needs to keep its ratings going, CNBC evolved into an unpaid PR service for the same CEOs whose financial shenanigans and deceptions brought us economic catastrophe.
I had a painful moment of recognition about a decade ago, when, during the dot-com boom, I stupidly listened to a CEO interviewed on CNN call his stock undervalued to reporter Ron Insana, found myself convinced and then proceeded to my computer to double down on a bad bet I had already made. When the stock tanked some more, I had a painful epiphany: these morons mouthing off about money were no better informed or intellectually rigorous than the loudmouths shouting at one another about politics. They were television talking heads, nothing more. That was the last time I thought myself smart enough to make my own investment decisions. As Walter Lippmann diagnosed the problem back in Liberty and the News (1920), I simply had no access to good information and was at the mercy of “the quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist.”
Stewart and Colbert have done yeoman work for the rest of us by exposing the thoughtlessness of the punditocracy’s perpetual-motion machine, which spins itself silly powered only by hot air. But the problem goes far deeper. We may have elected a liberal Democratic president and Democratic Congress, but our discourse remains rooted in hardline conservative assumptions. That means the Obama administration–in Iraq, in Afghanistan and regarding so much of its domestic agenda–is constricted by homilies that make sense inside the conference rooms of Heritage and AEI but enjoy precious little relevance to life as it is actually lived by most Americans. Yet survey after survey demonstrates that the majority of people reject these ideological assumptions and embrace a far more pragmatic approach to problem solving, which goes by the name “liberalism.”
The content of our business press is even more overdetermined by the power dynamic that places the interests–and assumptions–of the extremely wealthy over everyone else’s. Think about it. Why did our Democratic presidential debates–particularly those moderated by George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson–focus so relentlessly on the future tax rates of barely 5 percent of Americans? Why are headlines in Politico screaming about “class warfare”? Your (shrinking) newspaper does not have a labor section. It does not have an environment section. And it sure as hell does not have a human rights section.
PS: Don’t tell my publisher, but Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals is out in paperback.