I’m a big fan of Jon Stewart. I learn more from the Daily Show than from network newscasts. But his artful skewering of Jim Cramer this past week was a cheap shot, an easy way to blow off populist steam about the financial crisis.
While I agree with Stewart’s overriding premise that major financial media let Americans down almost as much as the financial industry did, bunching Cramer along with the liars and thieves went too far. And it’s ironic to me that Stewart would attack a financial journalist who consistently tries to level the playing field between the “institutional financial complex” and the average investor.
Cramer saw this meltdown coming, and called it before almost anyone else, in his famous “rant” months before the October 2007 market peak. He also suggested people exit the market on “The Today Show” when the Dow was around 10,500. That advice saved a lot of people almost 4,000 points.
Cramer is an easy target because of his bombastic style and because he makes many market and stock recommendations. CNBC is an easy target too; you can pull 20/20-hindsight video clips all day. But did any major financial press see last Fall’s crash coming (after the market had already fallen 25%)? Many experts with great track records didn’t get it right either.
Most of the large financial media are as much a part of the problem as the financial institutions themselves. As Cramer admitted, “we can do a lot better.”
But while the highly publicized “Stewart vs. Cramer” episode will ultimately compel better reporting, I fear it may also further cement black-and-white populist thinking on the financial meltdown. This is a highly complex crisis requiring investors and institutions to make finer shades-of-grey distinctions about what happened, how to fix it, and how to move forward productively.
Perhaps one of the overriding lessons of this crisis is the need to distinguish between real content and window dressing. While I clearly see the clowning Jim Cramer does to be entertaining, I mainly see beyond that to his knowledge, perspective and willingness to call it as he sees it. To me, he’ll always be the guy who “got it” a year before Ben Bernanke did.
Similarly, I hope more average investors will be able to see beyond the reserved, steady and credible persona of many mainstream financial media. During the height of the crisis those media mostly stuck to their persona, when maybe what we really needed was a guy screaming at us.