Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer: The fool wins

After days of fevered promotion, Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer finally met face-to-face on The Daily Show on Thursday night. Given that Cramer began apologizing within minutes of appearing on the show, the question of who won or lost is pretty much moot. What is interesting, however, is what the discussion -- and the methods that the two men employed -- says about the financial media, the news, and the role of The Daily Show in the nation's discourse.

From the beginning, it was apparent how the two men had prepared for the confrontation. In an advance clip, Stewart appeared in a cinder block-lined room, under an exposed light bulb, training for his interview. As an unseen interrogator shouted out obscure questions about finance, Stewart responded with encyclopedic answers.

While the segment was funny, it was also fairly true. Everything in Stewart's demeanor suggested that he was determined to make Cramer answer for his mistakes, as well as those of CNBC. Cramer, by comparison, was humble, apologetic, and almost ingratiating.

This style reversal made for some strangely uncomfortable moments, such as when Cramer, employing an Eddie Haskell-esque tone, told Stewart "I'm a big fan of the show . . . but who's never said that?" Stewart, stone-faced, replied "A lot of people, actually." Cramer continued in this mode, admitting almost immediately that "I got a lot of things wrong . . . I don't think anyone should be spared in this environment."

In the course of the interview, Stewart touched on several of his favorite criticisms of the media. For example, he noted the danger of the 24-hour news cycle (or, more specifically, the 17 hours of live TV that Cramer said CNBC produces daily), recognizing that it is designed to create hype and undermine analysis. Later, he repeatedly returned to the theme that CNBC has committed "a sin of commission" by choosing to substitute investigative reporting with credulous acceptance of the statements issued by businessmen, traders, and politicians. He and Cramer agreed that, with the exception of "Faber [and] maybe two other guys," CNBC had failed in its responsibility as a news source.

On the other hand, Stewart's claim that the financial news industry seemed to be "in bed" with financial schemers produced one of the evening's rare moments of pushback. When Cramer quickly responded, "That's not fair," Stewart moved to another topic. However, he repeatedly returned to the theme of journalistic responsibility, at one point stating, "These guys [. . .] were on a Sherman's march through their companies financed by our 401(K)s, and all the incentives of their companies were for short-term profit. And they burned the fu**ing house down -- with our money -- and walked away, rich as hell. And you guys knew that was going on."

As Daily Finance recently reported, Cramer has previously admitted to stock market manipulation. At one point, Stewart showed portions of an interview in which Cramer described how to create market buzz, noting that "I want the Jim Cramer on CNBC to protect me from that Jim Cramer." He later followed this up, stating "I understand you want to make finance entertaining, but it isn't a fu**ing game. When I watch that, I get . . . I can't tell you how angry that makes me. Because what it says to me is [. . .] you all know what's going on."

One key area in which Cramer and Stewart seemed at odds was the matter of responsibility. Cramer seemed to blame himself for making bad calls, while Stewart criticized his role in the creation of an unreal market. In Stewart's formulation, there seem to be two separate markets. The first, which he called "the 401(K)s," is long-term, responsible, and conservative; the second, which he called "the real market," is "fast, dangerous, ethically dubious, [and] damaging to the long term market." He argued that Cramer was playing to the second group, asking "Honest or not, in what world is a 35-to-one leveraged position sane?" Cramer responded that, in the context of "a world that made you 30% a year from 1999 to 2007," his outlook had been sound.

Later, when Cramer pointed out that there is a market for his brand of hyperbolic investment analysis, Stewart curtly responded that "there's [also] a market for cocaine and hookers."

In the end, Stewart demonstrated both the strengths and weaknesses of his show. As several people pointed out in the comments section of my earlier Stewart vs. Cramer post, he is, effectively, America's fool. In the classic context, a fool was the only one in a king's court who could speak the truth because he was also the only one capable of making it palatable.

On the downside, the fool can never let the audience know how intelligent he is, and he can never allow his true emotions to show. Jon Stewart has made a name for himself largely by appearing to be a playful class clown. Last night, he let the mask slip a little, showing that he has a keen understanding of the economic meltdown. In the process, he also showed how angry it has made him: when discussing Cramer's history of stock manipulation, he refused to look at the man across the table, and everything in his demeanor suggested that he was carefully restraining his temper.

At the end of the evening, Stewart acknowledged that he had, perhaps, slipped beyond his original brief, telling Cramer "Maybe we can remove the 'financial expert' and the 'In Cramer we trust' and start getting back to fundamentals on the reporting [...] and I can go back to making fart noises and funny faces." Cramer, laughing, agreed, and the two finished on a handshake.

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