Brawl Street: Jon Stewart versus Jim Cramer
Friday 13 March 2009
It was given all the billing and pre-match hype of a heavyweight boxing bout. After a week-long feud that has consumed discussion on the internet and TV, the top US satirist and the nation's pre-eminent stock market pundit went head-to-head on prime-time television, and viewers have spent the past 24 hours scoring the fight.
The appearance by the fast-talking Jim Cramer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, was at once hilarious, scarily intense and illuminating about the failure of financial journalism in the lead-up to the credit crisis.
The Daily Show dubbed it "Brawl Street", and the feud has proved that Stewart's deadly serious satire is as relevant now as it ever was when he was the liberal scourge of George Bush's administration.
Cramer, meanwhile, was fighting to shore up his reputation as the investor's champion. His show Mad Money, which airs on business channel CNBC, is a maelstrom of shouting and sound effects, delivered in the manner of a deranged shock jock, but viewers have flocked to the show in search of investment wisdom in both good times and bad. His finest hour - an August 2007 rant about the Federal Reserve's refusal to cut interest rates to head off the crisis, when he shouted "they know nothing" - was an internet favourite for months.
On the Thursday night head-to-head, the funniest lines came at the start, as Stewart contrasted the two contenders' pre-fight preparations. Stewart showed himself brushing up on financial arcana. Cramer, the inveterate self-publicist, meanwhile, had been on daytime TV, appearing with Martha Stewart, the lifestyle guru and sometime white-collar criminal (who spent time in jail for insider trading). As Cramer was shown beating pastry dough with a rolling pin, Jon Stewart said: "Mr Cramer, don't you destroy enough dough on your own show?"
Jokes aside, what followed was a harder-nosed interview about the failings of the financial system and its monitors than perhaps anything seen on US television since the credit crisis erupted.
For most of the past week, Jon Stewart had been making jabs at CNBC for its fawning coverage of Wall Street, even as the economic devastation wrecked by the credit crisis was starting to unfold. Jim Cramer - characteristically, but this time ill-advisedly - was the one to lash back hardest. "Oh, oh, a comedian is attacking me!" he said, sarcastically. "Wow! He runs a variety show!"
And so the feud took off. Stewart aired still more embarrassing clips of Cramer advising his viewers to pile into Bear Stearns shares in the weeks before the bank collapsed, rendering them worthless. On successive days, The Daily Show compiled a stew of CNBC pundits talking up companies that are now defunct, or calling over-stretched mortgage borrowers "losers", or interviewing financiers about how much fun it is to be a billionaire.
Stewart's genius is that he can focus public rage into a satirical laser beam; on these occasions, he let the clips speak for themselves, then concluded with: "Fuck you."
And on the Thursday show-down, broadcast in the UK yesterday, Stewart eviscerated Cramer, not just for CNBC's performance, but also for a whole Wall Street way of life that prized short-term gain over long-term investment. Bank bosses have walked away from their collapsed companies with tens of millions of dollars in bonuses, and short-term traders are still able to get rich speculating in the markets, while individuals' pension funds - usually invested in shares for the long run - have halved since the stock market peaked 18 months ago.
Cramer, a former hedge fund manager, said he wished he had seen the scale of the crisis to come, that he wished corporate chief executives hadn't lied to him, and that he did call attention to techniques for manipulating the market.
"Absolutely, we could do better," he said. "There are shenanigans, and we should call them out. Everyone should. I should do a better job at it. I'm trying."
Stewart accused him of "selling snake oil as vitamin tonic" and, in a classic "gotcha" moment, aired footage showing Cramer, on a private discussion panel two years ago, appearing to encourage just those sorts of shenanigans, saying traders should manipulate futures trades "because it's legal, and it's a very quick way to make money, and very satisfying". The investment pundit responded that he was "inarticulate" if he had suggested he personally manipulated the market.
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