Friday, March 13, 2009

Jon Stewart is NOT a comedian

After the latest Jon Stewart beat down of a media lowlife (in this case, an entire channel, CNBC, as represented by Jim Cramer and Rick Santelli) for providing entertainment and calling it news, a similar script is playing out that did when he went on Crossfire to tell Carlson and Begala "You are hurting America"

Here is the original Daily Show video collage of CNBC missing the boat on the financial crisis, Cramer going on Scarborough Country to complain, and the entire episode when Cramer came on, or only the full Jim Cramer interview (it had to be edited down). You must watch the entire interview. You just must do it. Honestly, it is just great great television. It also works very well because Cramer actually takes Stewart and the interview seriously and makes some of the typical media arguments well enough for Jon to very effectively skewer those ideas. In this interview (not having watched his show) he is actually somewhat sympathetic, in that he is genuinely regretful. That is an emotion that I don't think I have seen on television. Because Jon is clearly using Cramer as an example here ("this song isn't about you"), unlike Crossfire, but as an example of the whole us vs them attitude (in this case main street vs. wall street) and the assumption that we have the media is on our side, when, as Jon points out, not only are they not on our side, but they are sitting on the sides, watching us get cheated, and cheering for the other side. This really holds true for just about every bit of media out there, in terms of this crisis (or even the disaster of the last eight years). Maybe if they were actually on our side, we would be willing to pay for the content that they provide, seeing it as valuable, instead of just buying stuff that they happen to advertise next to the news.

But back to the Jon Stewart media takedown script:

The "victim" expresses disbelief that someone who is "just a comedian" could criticize them.
Jon Stewart responds by saying exactly, I am just a comedian (I follow a show where puppets make crank calls) , you are supposed to be a journalist, reporting the news, not entertainment that has some sort of arbitrary and loose connection to the facts.
Jon always wins (or at least so far).
But they are both wrong.

Jon Stewart (and his underappreciated staff) are satirists.

He takes the media to task for providing entertainment, and calling it news, but he is providing the news, and calling it entertainment.
His viewers know this. The Daily Show bits have a kernel of truth. In fact, they are not really funny if you are not aware of the truth being mocked. And sometimes, when it is really good, you didn't realize the truth until you saw it being mocked.
This kernel of truth is why he is actually more trusted than most "real" newsmen. It is not because people just think he is hilarious. This is why comedy is hard, because it is really a very delicate relationship which hinges on trust. Think about George Carlin.

Why can't we compare him to Mark Twain, or Jonathan Swift, and call him the satirist of our time? The Onion is called a satirical newspaper. Why are Jon's brilliant YouTube and cable news collages (by the way, a lot lower tech than you might think, scroll down to the 4th comment) not seen as incisive satire. It is high time we accepted that The Daily Show is a piece of media satire that would make Twain proud.

Acknowledging Stewart as a satirist would acknowledge his grasp of both political truths, but also that he has feelings about this. Given that his combination of these feelings (I think a bit of truth I remember about a long profile of him by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times was along the lines of "we wake up really really angry in the morning, and have to make it funny by the afternoon"). This is when satirists shine, when there is a lot of stuff to be angry about. And there is never really a shrotage of those things.

One of the common talking points of his "victims" is that he is applying some sort of double standard, by only attacking people who aren't on his side of the political spectrum. "Speaking truth to power" - Scarborough says this, and then say, hey, he picks on us little guys. But Jon Stewart's response is that the media has power.
"CNBC could be an enormously powerful tool of illumination"
These cable news networks have the eyes and ears of their countrymen, that is power. Just ask the most powerful character in Catch-22, ex-Pfc Wintergreen, who controlled the mail room. Rush Limbaugh is owning up to his power (as being the current leader of the opposition party in this country), but somehow whenever cable media figures are caught like this by Jon Stewart, they do the "awww, poor little old me" routine.

Jon Stewart has earned our trust, as a layman, as someone who wakes up angry about the same things we are angry about. So when he says to Jim Cramer
"It feels like we are capitalizing your adventure" - we buy it, we let him speak for us, even though we know that he is not a layman, he is a millionaire himself. He hosted the Oscars! But we don't call him a celebrity misusing his bully pulpit. Why? Because he earned his pulpit, by earning our trust. Not with pratfalls, silly faces and impressions (a running joke on the show is that his impressions are awful) but by waking up mad as hell, and making that anger into laughter, without patronizing us by side-stepping the truth of that anger.

I imagine Jon would say it doesn't quite work if you take it too seriously. If he did this every week, it would start to get tiresome (although there are plenty of worthy targets). And we can stomach the anger with the sugar coating of silly photoshop puns, and there are some cheap laughs.

Ultimately, I think Jon is saving journalism, not only by practicing it, but by policing it. It is good to see that someone is putting the trust that they have built to good use.


Sam said...

Good point, Cedar, that Stewart is a satirist. He wants to have it both ways sometimes, saying that he's just a comedian, but he's clearly so much more.

I just watched the interview. Earlier, at the gym, I saw a clip on Charlie Gibson's show about it. I got so pissed, watching them reporting on Stewart with the angle that he was embodying populist rage. He was reporting like you should have been, damnit! So Gibson and crew used Stewart as a news story, but unlike Cramer, they took no responsibility. Instead, they argued that the blame should be spread around. Duh. Not much journalism there. Stewart has a long way to go before he saves journalism.

brianpablo said...

There’s nothing that warms my heart more than to see that guy skewered on television. He’s exactly the bull throwing, squawk-box chattering monkey he appears to be on his show, even if he gets dressed up in his contrition suit to take on adversary he cannot possibly defeat in a debate he has no chance of winning.

CNBC has never been a very serious news network, its boom came with the rise of the yuppie dot-com day trader that wanted someone to hold their hand and cheerlead their useless investments in fly-by-night companies. But even in something that might be considered more heavy-hitting, like maybe Bloomberg News, there’s a peculiar conundrum that’s inherent to market reporting – markets create their own truth. The market doesn’t care if the information you’ve got on the screen is correct, it wants to know if that information is going to move the market. Once it does, it only reinforces the importance of the news, whether or not it’s right. Headlines start popping up saying “Markets move on news of X” and it no longer matters whether or not X happened.

The result of this is often that news agencies pick up an on-the-record statement from someone that is imminently unqualified to offer the information, and the markets jump. Shortly thereafter, the someone with authority over the issue comes out and says “Pardon me, that is totally false. And what’s more that fool has no reason to be commenting on that.” Market drops back down. All the while the traders are happier than pigs in shit because they have something to trade on – there’s nothing worse for a trader than a boring day of no news.

I happen to know from first-hand experience that market reporters are expected to report on market rumors. If a stock jumps or tanks, traders tell us it’s because of a rumor, we’re expected to report that the stock is moving on a rumor, even if we have no way of verifying the rumor’s validity. This, mind you, is not spreading the rumor, it’s simply explaining why the stock is moving. You, like me, are probably forgiven if you struggle to see the difference.

But to get back to Jon Stewart, I think what lets him do this sort of thing so well is that he’s not institutional. I think it’s great that the MSM has to play second fiddle to the job he did. That smackdown played out in every major news network for a week. Would anyone have wanted to see Gibson or Couric try to do the same thing? No, because it would have been dull, milquetoast, anti-septic boredom. At the same time, I don’t think Stewart would have been able to wipe the floor with Palin the way Gibson and Couric did, precisely because they were not doing satire.

This I suppose does bring us back to the question of why wasn’t the MSM on this one to begin with? I think that’s a very good question – it happens to be one that I might ask Jon Stewart himself. While the media networks could never have exposed Cramer for the low-life that he is in the inimitable manner of Jon Stewart, it’s also pretty easy to tar and feather someone when they’re already on the stocks. Cramer’s shenanigans are no secret to anyone. If you want an entertaining kiss-and-tell look at all the shit he used to pull read Nicholas Meir’s book about what it was like working with him. I’m not just talking about him throwing computer monitors whenever his trades went bad. I’m talking about him planting negative questions at press conferences just after he’d shorted a stock, about him buying stocks and then recommending them on his show to yuppie daytraders who promptly pushed their prices up by fifty percent. That was ten years ago. Shouldn’t JS, like the MSM, have been going after Cramer all these years as well? How dependent is he on the explosion of a crisis to be able to tackle these long-festering issues?

Truth is there were people going after this story all along, just nobody want to listen to them. Nouriel Roubini, to name one shining example, had this one pegged for three years. His blogged hammered on about Credit Default Swaps, Collateralized Debt Obligations and Mortgage Backed Securities when nobody had ever heard of those now-infamous devices. I myself remember being shocked in 2005 when my brother told me people were taking out fixed rate loans – how stupid is that I said? Nobody would buy a product without knowing how much it costs!? He proved me wrong with two Google searches. Since then I sorta believed in the back of my mind that something was going horribly wrong, but I, most likely as a product of my environment, was convinced it was oil prices that were going to take out the U.S. economy. Turns out it was exactly the opposite.

To conclude my (now customary) overly long and self-indulgent post, I think quite a bit of this comes down to the way economics is taught. I’m convinced 90 percent of college graduates in the United States see finance and the stock market as something similar to a dead cockroach that needs to be peeled up off the floor – needs to be done, but you don’t want to get close to it and you’d rather have someone else deal with it. This is fueled by a math-driven teaching of economics that turns the subject into a hallowed language for a protected few when a lot of it is pretty much common sense. I’ve seen few universities worry about giving students some form of stripped down financial literacy that would give people a basic grounding in these issues so that can’t be chased away from an argument so easily by a fancy-pants MBA with some demand-curve functions. Economics departments in the end don’t want this, they want to maintain their revered status as the most scientific of the social sciences and don’t want a bunch of panty-waists watering down their serious regression analyses with some easy-to-understand explanations.

Anyway, thanks for sharing the JS link so I can share the world’s joy at Cramer being outted as a charlatan.


Cedar said...

@Sam - Yeah, I guess you are right that Stewart has a way to go before he saves journalism. And I think Brian is right that Stewart is also a bit late on this one too, he could have been doing this a few years ago.
I also agree the "blame should be spread around" bit is inane. What that means, is that the institutions failed. The incentives failed. So we don't want to lock people up for something like this. Fine. But let's understand the incentives that we set up, and not be surprised when people act on them.

@Brian - Thanks so much for joining in on this. It is a blog, so I am glad someone is joining in on my self-indulgence. One person like me writing is being self-indulgent. But two people, two people being self-indulgent at the same time... well, then I think you could call it a newsmagazine talk show :)
But I love your insider info on the financial reporting. I remember reading about Roubini and Nassim Taleb a few years ago (99 or 00, I think) and just thinking, wow, how could they be right, when the rest of the world goes right along. It seems what you are saying with financial news is that it is one of those ridiculous feedback loops, where everyone benefits when there is some news (any news). The news agencies are willing to report a ridiculous rumor, and then even squash it, because it shows the influence of news (and thus, their power). There is nothing worse for a trader than a boring day, and also nothing worse for a news company. At least your local nightly news can report on sightings of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast (have you seen that youtube collage?) instead of something more blatantly untrue.
Regarding the way economics is taught, I couldn't agree more, and it dovetails nicely with my interest in higher education. Since we are sharing dirty little secrets, I think a dirty little secret of higher ed is that the way most of us have been trained to teach our subject is to train other future college professors. Sir Ken Robinson in his TED talk makes this point. It is a bit snide, because it is naturally very difficult to teach someone to learn something that is different from what you currently know, and for a different purpose. But looking closely at many curricula in higher ed (and how individual courses are taught), you would discover that they make a lot more sense when you think that the professor is trying to get the student to progress along a line between them. I have been thinking about this trap a lot, and trying to apply it in my classes (so as to serve those who will become professors, but also clinical psychologists, or social workers). What I find myself doing a lot more is process type stuff, like how to study, how to read a psychology journal article. Although I can't claim outright success, I think this sort of approach would address what you have in mind for economics as well. How to read your credit card statement, how to read a prospectus. How to write a yearly budget. Anyways, to be continued. This is fun.