Friday, March 13, 2009

The Stewart-Cramer interview and the predicament of journalism


Jon Stewart's interview of Jim Cramer last night was a remarkable example of what contemporary journalism isn't.

Many journalists probably wish they could do something like Stewart did, although perhaps a bit toned down: sit a subject in a chair and have at him with arguments, video clips, and righteous indignation in the name of The People until the interviewee produces a weak and compliant mea culpa.

But one shouldn't take too much from the actual exchange between the two men: In an important sense, the outcome was rigged from the start. Stewart was aggressive, perhaps overly so, and Cramer was surprisingly passive and and even apologetic; he took most of Stewart's criticisms without doing much in the way of fighting back. Had someone like Karl Rove sat in the chair opposite Stewart, the interview would not have gone the same.

The reason we don't see interviews like this on television is first, that interviewees don't sit there and take accusations of this type-- they fight back, spin, obfuscate, or change the subject; and second, that if a contemporary reporter started laying into a subject the way Stewart laid into Cramer, no one would ever agree to an interview with that reporter again. It was a rare combination of circumstances that led Cramer to agree to sit still and listen to Stewart engage in his j'accuse.

What is important about the interview, however, is that both Stewart and Cramer are playing journalistic roles. Stewart is a comedian who does journalism through comedy; Cramer is a financial journalist who does journalism through entertainment. They are two sides of the same coin. One is interviewing the other, and what they are talking about is journalism itself. That is why the exchange is significant.

Stewart the comedian as journalist criticized Cramer the financial journalist as entertainer for being a bad journalist-- for sucking up to and being coopted by the people he should be covering, for failing to ask these people tough questions, for failing to treat their answers with appropriate skepticism, for failing to do independent investigation to discover the problems in the U.S. economy and the misbehavior of financial elites. Stewart criticized Cramer and his network CNBC, above all, for allowing sycophancy and a desire for ratings to overcome journalistic judgment so that CNBC had essentially become a cheerleader for a financial bubble and thus had encouraged millions of ordinary Americans to invest in ways that caused them to lose much of their savings later on.

This explains some of Cramer's passivity: he thinks of himself as more than an entertainer-- he thinks of himself as an expert and financial journalist who is entertaining. Stewart called him a bad journalist, even a corrupt journalist, who had sided with financial elites over the ordinary citizens he was supposed to inform, and Cramer was not able to mount a defense of his professionalism.

We should congratulate Jon Stewart for outstanding television, and for an absorbing interview that raised really important issues. In this sense, he is doing great journalism. But we should not assume that regular journalists could simply imitate his mannerisms and his aggressive questioning tactics and turn journalism around. Their subjects will not behave like Jim Cramer, a journalist, did. Professional journalists must abandon the bad habits of contemporary journalism, and the sycophancy, corruption, and complicity that come with them; but to do that, they also have to find some way to free themselves from much larger social and economic forces that lead to co-optation.

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