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Until Jon Stewart targeted CNBC’s tribe of glib business news personalities, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” didn’t seem to know quite what to do with itself in the Barack Obama era.
The show’s attempts to mock the president’s first 100 days seemed half-hearted. Going after the Great Democratic Hope right out of the gate didn’t much appeal to “The Daily Show” audience. And with our nation’s economy imploding, attacking Obama felt like mocking a doctor working in a battlefield trauma ward.
Then Stewart had his magnificent eight-minute-plus rant against CNBC last week. You could feel his anger. The segment was hilarious. More than that, it was cathartic. Viewers loved it. Comedy Central’s online division had its best week ever, with the anti-CNBC clip getting 1.3 million views.
CNBC’s “Mad Money” showman Jim Cramer took the bait and returned fire, and the story went supernova — Stewart vs. Cramer! Suddenly, “The Daily Show” had its new George W. Bush, with each new volley becoming an online sensation as Stewart devastatingly skewered the news network for its every boneheaded Wall Street forecast.
Except … except ….
It’s not CNBC’s fault.
The financial crisis. The big thing fueling all this. Stewart could make a case for responsibility with Bush — he was the leader of the country, the decider.
But it’s not thanks to CNBC that viewers are losing their homes. It’s not Jim Cramer’s fault that a staggering percentage of the world’s wealth has vanished. The network’s on-air talent are struggling to understand and predict the worst economy in our lifetime, they don’t control it.
When Stewart jokes that by rallying viewers against CNBC he’s engaging in the same “cheap populism” as Rick Santelli, he’s telling the truth. Cable network reporters filling hours of air time make mistakes and sometimes say idiotic and sycophantic things, it’s routine “Daily Show” fodder, and one shouldn’t expect CNBC’s staff to somehow be immune. And when you have Warren Buffett saying “buy-buy-buy” in November, it’s no surprise the likes of Cramer and Santelli couldn’t crystal ball what would happened next.
And since when is CNBC considered such a powerhouse of influence, anyway?
Until recently, the only joke anybody made at CNBC’s expense was how few people watched the network. Though its ratings have swelled during the economic crisis and dwarf chief competitors Bloomberg and Fox Business Network, the channel only averages 300,000 viewers at any given time. To watch Stewart, one would think the modest basic cable network single-handedly led millions of American families to financial ruin. Whatever real-world culpability the network has in this crisis, it’s infinitesimal.
As for Cramer, his Top 40-stock market-DJ-circus act deserves every arrow you want to fire at it. But the silliness of “Mad Money” is a pretty big clue as to how any adult with a brokerage account should view the show. A person losing their 401(k) due to Cramer’s advice is like somebody who e-mails their bank account number to that Nigerian prince who needs their help.
On Thursday’s “Daily Show,” Stewart hammered Cramer until the “Mad Money” host was utterly defeated and hanging his head. To somebody just tuning into this drama, they would have thought Jim Cramer was Bernie Madoff.
“I understand that you want to make finance entertaining,” Stewart said, in a devastating line, “but it’s not a f**king game.”
CNBC and their reporters are the low-hanging fruit, easy economic crisis targets. The true villians are not producing mockable video on a daily basis, and are presumably unwilling to be interviewed on “The Daily Show.” Stewart ridiculing the cable network is no sin — it’s terrific theater. But the absolute hurricane of animosity being channeled toward CNBC and Cramer this past week feels a bit like a witch hunt; stringing up a clumsy messenger just because he’s there.
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