Friday, March 20, 2009

On the Business Journalist

At our house we’re fans of both John Stewart and Jim Cramer. After all, they’re not as different as they seem.

So, you can imagine we watched last week the made-for-television back and forth between them. It started with Stewart’s satirical critique of punditry at CNBC, and culminated in the interview of Cramer on Stewart’s show. We watched it all; and while we also appreciated that, first, the critique was about business journalism in general, and CNBC in particular, and so it was, as Stewart said, “unfortunate” that Cramer had become the face of it; for Cramer had gone out on a limb more than once trying to advise his beloved “home gamers” appropriately. Second, Cramer in the interview did try to take what he would call “the high road,” not getting into a fight, but trying to respond quietly, and where he felt he should, apologetically.

That said, I was disappointed, then, by Cramer’s comments yesterday on the Today Show. He said it was really misinformed to say that business journalists “had caused” the economic crisis.

I was disappointed, because that’s not what Stewart said. What Stewart said was that it was an important part of the role of a journalist to be skeptical about sources. What he meant when he said that he wanted Cramer the business journalist to protect him from Cramer the hedge fund manager was that, if Cramer wanted to be considered a journalist, being investigative was an essential part of the job.

Now, I have to say I have a certain skepticism in general about “business journalism” on the cable channels – or, more accurately, about “journalism” on the cable channels. I don’t think of, and don’t usually speak of those channels as “news channels,” their chosen names notwithstanding. I think of them as Opinion and Editorial Channels – Op-Ed Channels, or perhaps now Punditry Channels. That’s because I find little news on them. I find little new information, and lots of opinions. Now, sometimes those assertions are identified as opinions, and sometimes their asserted as if they were facts; except, facts have sources that can be acknowledged, even if the acknowledgement is as vague as “the folks I’ve been talking to.”

CNBC is as much a Punditry Channel as any of the rest of them. Jim Cramer is a pundit. Now, he also does some journalism. He does on his shows share information that would be hard for his “home gamers” to ferret out. However, the bulk of his show is punditry, his educated opinion, expressed for the interest of his audience. I certainly believe he wants to do well by his audience. I believe his audience is a lot broader than most of his colleagues on CNBC, who seem to be talking only to other folks in the investment industry. I believe his principles, and especially his own principle of not taking anyone’s opinions – even his own - uncritically when making financial decisions, are good principles.

That’s why I was disappointed that he didn’t get it. Stewart’s challenge wasn’t about whether business journalists had caused the economic crisis. It was about the group as a whole leaning so into their connections with business that they failed to be skeptical and investigative as journalists. And it is that very skepticism and investigation that would provide the rest of us with real news, really new information, and so enable us to make the kind of good, careful decisions that Cramer himself advises.

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