It’s a bit late to still be writing about the Jon Stewart-Jim Cramer episode, but it brought out a point I wanted to make before I forget. The salient point for me was never whether Jon Stewart was “right” in his criticism of Cramer or CNBC. I actually took the time to watch the clip, and Stewart made plenty of perfectly-valid points, and Cramer did not acquit himself well at all.
But the real issue always was this: why was Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, even talking about this stuff in the first place? Tune into this thing in the middle and you might assume this was the culmination of an investigation of some sort. But in reality Cramer was there after a sequence of events which traces back through Stewart’s response, to Cramer’s written criticism, of Stewart’s original diss of CNBC. And the question is: what prompted Stewart’s original diss of CNBC?
The answer is that CNBC’s Rick Santelli had criticized President Obama’s policies on-air. So The Daily Show decided to slam CNBC. Period.
For all his posturing as waging an important critique of CNBC’s business reporting and its role in the financial crisis, and speaking up for those harmed by market events, and granting the fact that his criticisms had merit on their face, the reality is that I doubt Jon Stewart would ever have talked about, mentioned, or noticed CNBC (let alone Rick Santelli) in the first place had this not happened. Had what not happened?
Had Santelli not dissed his man, Obama.
A lot of energy is expended in life, on the air, and on the ‘net in the service of political arguments. I guess what I’m saying is that most of these aren’t genuine arguments. They are not folks on two sides of an issue engaging in sincere, open-minded dispute seeking to learn truth. They are teams, cliques, tribes – sides. Folks defending their side. Jon Stewart clearly has a “side”. And (unfortunately) he also has a platform, The Daily Show, a comedy show way past its sell-by date that was originally set up with the far-funnier Craig Kilborn as host.
Essentially, people like Jon Stewart (consciously or not) see themselves as a loyal samurai to their Democratic-Party lords: threats to their rule and honor and greatness, and criticisms of their actions (whatever they are, whether they have merit or not) must be met in force. That’s the samurai code.
The fact that someone named Rick Santelli had dissed his “side” came to Stewart’s attention, one way or another. So he, and his writing staff, who are obviously intelligent and clever people, sprung into action, and used their platform to craft what amounted to a counterattack – the original embarrassing-to-CNBC clip which (ultimately) roped Jim Cramer into the dispute.
Now, notice that their counterattack made little effort to rebut, dispute, or even really address the substance of what Santelli had said. Likewise nor did Stewart make any attempt to defend or even discuss administration policies whatsoever. Indeed many observers to the brouhaha may not even be aware of what Santelli said or why Stewart even started talking about CNBC. Essentially The Daily Show successfully changed the subject. This may just be because Santelli’s rant itself wasn’t juicy enough to crack jokes about & attack, so the Daily Show staff simply widened the net and targeted all of CNBC, basically by digging up ‘gotcha’ clips from the past (which, let’s note, casts doubt on the current meme that The Daily Show is some sort of useful corrective to mainstream news). So this is why the controversy ended up becoming “about CNBC” and even Jim Cramer (note to Daily Show writers: technically, Jim Cramer is a totally different guy from Rick Santelli).
Understandable enough. But seen in this light, the “controversy” takes on a slightly different flavor. Superficially, it had the characteristics of a political dispute about current events – one guy said one thing, other guys said other stuff, and back and forth like that, and the dispute referenced markets and the economy and certain troubles of the day. But the root of it all was: your guy dissed my guy so we’re gonna diss you.
What was missing from the whole thing was any genuine discussion of substance on the original points (which, by the way, I don’t necessarily think had merit). Even though the controversy was cloaked in a thin veneer of having to do with substantively arguing with CNBC/Santelli about the markets and such – and, importantly, benefitted from the perception that that’s what Stewart was doing – all that was really going on here was Stewart saying diss my guy, will ya? well let’s see how you like THIS. And then setting out to destroy and embarrass CNBC by association and by bringing in red herrings (such as whether CNBC commentators predict market behavior accurately).
The result is that a controversy that began by Rick Santelli criticizing actual policies ended up being about Jim Cramer vs. Jon Stewart. Like who’s cooler? Who’s lamer? Isn’t Jon Stewart cool?
The reason I bring all this up is because I don’t think this was the exception. I think this illustrates the norm in our political conversations. It’s not just Jon Stewart, it’s everyone. It is very seldom that I encounter or stumble upon anything resembling what I would recognize as a real, genuine, open-minded political debate; most of the time what I see is instinctive, reactionary “my side”-ism. As a result I get easily bored and disinterested in politics (and hence have little to blog about).
To turn Jon Stewart’s razor back against him: he (like Jim Cramer, only more so) has a TV show that a lot of people watch. He could be using that platform to bring up, talk about, and hash out political issues in a stimulating and informative (yet still, of course, funny) way. But instead he uses it for what is obviously motivated by naked, transparent side-defending maneuvers1, and yet pretends that’s not what he’s doing (and garners acclaim for being a sincere spokesman for truth – something he most certainly is not). And that’s why the guy rubs me the wrong way. Not because I think he’s “wrong” (I don’t, in this case!), or even (as the more common criticism goes) that he hides behind the comedic platform to launch his attacks, but simply the fact that he’s a phony who’s motivated solely by partisanship and pretends he’s not. No conversation is truly advanced by this.
Ok, I guess I also don’t like him cuz I’ve never thought his comedy was worth a damn, even back in the days of the UPN talk show, and before that the MTV talk show, and before that the appearances on VH1′s standup-comedy shows, etc., and yet somehow we’re still stuck with the guy. Yeah, there’s that too.
1Although, to play devil’s advocate, I’ll admit the thought crossed my mind listening to his comments (many of which seemed to dwell on CNBC’s role as prognosticators and all the people who supposedly rely on them for financial advice) that perhaps Stewart sincerely and legitimately feels burned by CNBC due to making specific investments/financial decisions based on their commentary & losing a lot of wealth from his personal portfolio (which of course is still measured in the tens of millions). If this were his motive, I would have to retract most of the above, although it would convert Stewart’s little-guy-defender’ism into a different sort of hypocrisy and phoniness.