Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Failed Dividing Lines

The Jon Stewart-Jim Cramer showdown of last week demonstrated a few things that should be, and perhaps always should have been, blindingly obvious.

There exists no meaningful line between entertainment and news, comedian and informer, clown and critic. The Jon Stewarts, Stephen Colberts, Rush Limbaughs, Ann Coulters, Keith Olbermanns, Bill Mahers, PJ O'Rourkes, and Jim Cramers of the world can and should be held to account for the quality of their analysis and the validity of their truth claims, not just for their ability to attract and engage an audience. There is no hiding behind "I'm just an entertainer" to scrub their failures. For good or bad, public discourse is shaped by satirists and assorted smartasses in one degree or another.

So it has always been, at least since Aristophanes, and so it is today. Good satirists, humorists, and wits will entertain while telling the truth, and will waste minimal calories trying to convince everyone that they're not involved in the serious business of truth-seeking. Of course they are. Granted, they are expected to take liberties with the truth -- much of the fun enters here -- but there is a corresponding expectation that the departures will be seen for what they are if and when the matter receives careful scrutiny, as in a controversy over the line between proper financial journalism and whatever the hell Jim Cramer does, or one over the veracity of Jon Stewart's criticisms.

Equally revealing is what it did not demonstrate. Part of Jim Cramer's defense is the super-cynical view of Wall Street and of financial journalism under which "of course" CEOs lie to puff their stocks and assorted exotic financial products; and "of course" financial journalists serve as passive stenographers and transmitters of those lies; and "of course" caveat emptor is the very best we can ever hope for. This is a cop-out. Executives and other authorities who tell self-enriching lies should be seen for the liars and frauds they are, and financial journalism worth the title should help detect this and bring public attention to it. There should exist such a thing as financial journalism, not passive stenography, and it should enable caveat emptor to be something more than a blame-shifting platitude.

Bpaul has all the Stewart-Cramer video if you've somehow contrived to miss it.

(image source)

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