Jon Stewart grilled CNBC's Jim Cramer for all but five minutes of his show on Thursday night, while the "Mad Money" host feebly kept promising to do better. He should have stayed home.
In the process, Stewart again displayed journalistic instincts that put many conventional TV news organizations -- including CNBC -- to shame. The key exchange, in fact, hinged on Stewart explaining to Cramer what journalists do after Cramer threw up his hands at the idea that CNBC might have misled viewers because CEOs had lied to him.
"I'm under the assumption you don't just take their word at face value," Stewart said, hitting at his central point: That CNBC is so enamored with, and has been so deeply in bed with, the financial heavyweights that their breathless coverage was "disingenuous at best and criminal at worst."
A penitent-sounding Cramer meekly protested that he's simply doing "an entertainment show about business," but there's the rub: Either it's entertainment -- and therefore not to be taken seriously by those seeking genuine financial advice -- or it's a show about business, in which case CNBC's willingness to lap up whatever Wall Street figures said amounted to letting them get away with financial murder. "They burned the f--kin' house down with our money," Stewart said. In that context, Cramer's ranting and wacky sound effects look considerably less amusing -- less a sideshow than an abdication of responsibility.
CNBC has a small audience, but it's nevertheless an extremely valuable franchise for NBC Universal that has been damaged in the public consciousness over the last week. That concern perhaps explains why Cramer has made a veritable tour of NBC assets -- the "Today" show, "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, Martha Stewart's NBC-distributed syndicated program -- to defend himself, albeit not particularly well. If the PR conclusion was that sitting in dark room hiding wasn't an option, that certainly would have been preferable for Cramer and CNBC to what transpired Thursday.
How this will play out is yet to be determined, but my gut says the whole "feud" will likely fade away fairly soon. Nevertheless, given the pain the economy continues to inflict on the public, "The Daily Show" has delivered a reminder of the need for independent-minded journalism -- and in the process rendered CNBC a laughingstock to many casual viewers that might not have afforded the channel much thought previously.
Meanwhile, the old adage that "There's no such thing as bad publicity" appears not to be operable here -- at least not yet, anyway. Based on Nielsen data, ratings for Cramer's program and CNBC have actually dropped marginally since Stewart delivered his first rant -- a little surprising, given that one might have expected all those web links to prompt some tune-in out of curiosity. Then again, the channel's audience is relatively puny -- averaging 0.3% of U.S. households.
CNBC is still standing, but the foundation looks shakier than before this whole brouhaha began. And Cramer and the rest of his colleagues have been publicly schooled on what a truly tough interview looks like.