Ridicule is often the most painfully just punishment. In that spirit, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart justly and painfully punished CNBC's "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer simply by replaying some of the financial star's own embarrassing predictions.
We all make mistaken predictions about things. Heaven knows I've made plenty. But few of us make them with the gusto, volume, certitude, bells and whistles of the "Mad Money" man.
Nor do we have a major cable network backing us up with ads like those that hype, "In Cramer We Trust."
Stewart's beef is an important one: How did the major financial media, particularly cable television's premier financial network, miss the warning signs of recession and global financial collapse before it sunk all of our 401(k) retirement plans?
The "Daily Show" host is hardly the first critic to ask that question. Columbia Journalism Review, among other critics, have been raising the same questions. But Stewart has an advantage over the straight news anchors: It's OK for him to be silly.
That gives his words extra power when he decides to get serious.
For more than a week Stewart, armed with an array of video and audio clips of hyped-up cheerleading and bum predictions by CNBC celebrity predictors, went on the attack against financial celebrities he described in terms like, "Five Bald Guys Who Make Noise About Money, CNBC's famed Money Monkey ... or my go-to guru for all things finance: the Stock-Pickin' Chicken."
One of his targets, CNBC reporter Rick Santelli, backed out of a scheduled appearance on Stewart's show. You may recall how Santelli came into instant fame with a self-described on-air "rant" in which he blamed the financial collapse on everyone who took out a mortgage that they couldn't afford. No sympathy came from Santelli for the other victims, honest hard-working buyers who were duped into unwise deals, often by boiler-room techniques in an overheated and under-regulated market.
So give Jim Cramer proper credit for showing up for the confrontation, which can be seen on the show's Web site, and taking the beating that so many others among his colleagues also deserve.
If you expected, as I did, that the high-energy "Mad Money" man might just blow his stack and punch Stewart in the nose, you would be disappointed. Cramer came in with a strikingly humble demeanor that grew humbler under Stewart's devastating attack of video clips. As the audience cheered Stewart and hooted Cramer, the money guru slumped in his chair and uttered a few feeble defenses like a misbehaving kid who had been called into the principal's office.
Stewart nailed Cramer with sound bites of the money man's repeated touting of the strength of companies like Bear Stearns and other financial giants that collapsed. Cramer also had to explain old video clips of himself explaining techniques through which high-rolling hedge fund managers like Cramer used to be legally but unethically manipulate prices.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, according to the old African proverb, sometimes it takes a comedian to let the emperors of Wall Street journalism know when their clothes are falling apart.
I was only troubled by the way the half-hour battering of Cramer made him look almost like a fall guy for the entire global financial mess. He's more of a symptom of an underlying media pathology. The problem here is not individuals but attitudes, including a media culture that causes some people, particularly in the entertainment-driven medium of television, to blur the line between entertainment, good journalism and sound analysis.
Media need to cover the world of business and finance as aggressively as we are expected to cover politics and government. Instead, some financial shows are going the way of high-energy political talk shows: Asking for sound judgment is like calling for prudence in a mud-wrestling arena.
In hindsight, we can look back and see the hard-working, if largely unsung, journalists who saw early signs of today's financial storm gathering like a hurricane off the coast of the Florida. But, as with those who warned of bad intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, it was hard for the cautious voices to get much of a hearing.
As long as everyone was making money, nobody wanted to hear the bad news. Now that the bad news is upon us, everyone is pointing fingers of blame every which way even at the "Mad Money" man. He's an easy target, but hardly the only deserving one.