Every major news media outlet in the country is obsessed by the confrontation between Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.” Picking up on the hype—or eager to create it, networks touted the faceoff as “the feud of the century”: Two highly educated Jews from middle-class backgrounds splashing their affluence, influence and intellect all over the airwaves. Writing on the Huffington Post, Daniel Sinker noted unusual newspaper coverage: The Chicago Tribune fronted the skirmish over the Governor of Illinois’s 50% tax hike; The New York Times ran a colorful photo on Friday’s front page. And this paper (smaller than The Times but just as enthusiastic) led with two editorials declaring the showdown an illumination of Jewish values: Editor Rob Eshman wrote that Stewart and Cramer “represent the twin poles of Jewish existence”—the need for wealth and security and the balance of ethics—and related a biblical metaphor of the Kings vs. the Prophets (I’ll give you one guess who’s who..).
Not to mention, “The Daily Show” saw its second-largest audience of the year with 2.3 million viewers, just shy of its 2.6 million record on Inauguration Day. Seems Stewart’s stock is going up along with his smarts.
But I keep wondering, why all the hullabaloo over two talk show hosts going at it? Doesn’t that happen every day? The easy answer, of course, is that it’s a welcome departure from the usual doom-and-gloom of the news day—we’re sick of hearing that the economy is in tatters and China’s pissed off and the Middle East has real problems. Duh. That this “basic cable dustup” (as Sinker put it) is being treated as a legitimately serious news item says something about the future of journalism—and why Jon Stewart keeps getting his indictments right.
You see, Stewart’s real critique wasn’t about Cramer, it was also only marginally about CNBC. Instead, Stewart’s real rage comes from the role the modern media has created for itself: the role of cheerleader instead of watchdog, of favoring surface over depth, of respecting authority instead of questioning it.
But none of these stories—Ana Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson tickets, Michelle Obama giving an interview to Good Morning America—pass muster either. None of them address the issues of our time with the fearless tenacity that Stewart brings to his show most nights, and he’s a comedian.
When we can’t compete with a comic in terms of speaking truth to power, then it’s more clear than ever that journalism in the US has lost its way. It comes as no surprise then when, as newspapers crumble around the country, a report like the one released by the Pew Research Center this week says that only 33% of people would miss their local newspaper “a lot.” When you lead with a story about an interview that happened on a comedy show—and it’s the very same story that almost everyone else is leading with as well—what’s to miss?
What’s to miss—the refrain is always repeated—is the investigative reporting that helps to keep our leaders honest, our water clean, our businesses pure. What’s to miss is people asking fearless questions to those that need them asked. What’s to miss is the deep pockets that can fund a reporter to dig and dig and dig until she’s able to uncover some fragile truth. And yes, that stuff is vital to the functioning of a democracy. It also, let’s speak the truth here, doesn’t happen very often.