Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Comedians doing news, is bad news

By DeWayneWickham

This wasn’t funny.

The upbraiding of CBNC “shoutmeister” Jim Cramer, who barks out stock picks with the fervor of an evangelical preacher and the reliability of a pimp who brags that he has the best streetwalkers in town, didn’t happen on the pages of a leading newspaper. Nor did it occur on a television network news program.

It was done on Comedy Central, the cable channel better known for yukking it up for viewers than for doing public service journalism. But when Cramer went on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” last week, the network became a place of more news than laughter. Stewart’s grilling of Cramer got a lot of media coverage – as well is should. He exposed Cramer – a former hedge fund manager and one-time newspaper reporter – as a cable television financial guru who was easily bamboozled by executives of the failing corporations, whose stock he urged people to buy.

Even worse, Stewart played a previously unaired video of Cramer talking about how to manipulate stock for financial gain. “I want the Jim Cramer on CNBC to protect me from that Jim Cramer,” Stewart said, as Cramer struggled to recover from that revelation. He never did.

What Stewart did to Cramer during his appearance on the laugh factory network was the kind of journalism that could put a newspaper reporter on the short list for a Pulitzer Prize. He exposed the failings of Cramer’s show and of CNBC, the television financial network that airs it – but apparently has done little to police the program.

Last month another comedian, D. L. Hughley, made news when he coaxed Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele onto his CNN show and, in an unguarded moment, got him to cross swords with Rush Limbaugh.

When Hughley referred to the right-wing radio commentator as “the de facto leader of the Republican Party,” Steele disagreed. “No, he’s not. I’m the de facto leader of the Republican Party,” Steele said. Limbaugh, he said, is an entertainer who engages in “incendiary” and “ugly” talk.

Steele’s exchange with the comedian – and Limbaugh’s reaction to it – got widespread media coverage. And while his show, “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News,” has been cancelled, the idea it actually was able to deliver on its title is another troubling sign for newspapers.

The rise of the comedic journalist fills the void created by the slashing of newspaper staffs and the diluting of their content in an effort to cope with declining revenue. This retrenchment further adds to devaluation of newspaper journalism. It’s not that Stewart, or Hughley, are better reporters than can be found at this nation’s leading newspapers. It’s that too many managers of newspapers, like horse bound cavalrymen at the turn of the 20th century, are stuck in their saddles as tanks roll off the assembly line.

It’s their business model – advertising rates based on circulation – that has failed newspapers in an age where online readers can be measured in real time. But they have responded by cutting newsroom staffs. That’s like trying to save a sinking ship by throwing the crew overboard.

What we can learn from Stewart’s exposure of Cramer’s incestuous relationship with Wall Street’s robber barons and Hughley’s probing interview of Steele is that Americans still have a big appetite for good journalism. What should worry us is that as the ranks of newspaper journalists shrink no amount of satirists will be able to fill this void.

And that’s not funny.

1 comment:

RWMays said...

As it happened I saw the Stewart/Cramer interaction and I must say that Steward did valuable work in exposing Cramer for the front-man for Wall St. and charlatan that he and most of his brethren really are now, and always have been. I disagree with your point that recent cut-backs are the reason that Steward did work that "real" journalists should be doing- mainstream journalists showed no inclination to expose Cramer or his many clones when the networks or various newspapers were at full staff- this is a sad phenomenon for the public, but hardly new. I believe the problem lies elsewhere. Most mainstream news organs are innately conservative, despite propaganda to the contrary, and the worship of wealth and power so deeply ingrained in American culture doesn't stop at the newsroom door.