Daily Show host Jon Stewart has had a running battle with U.S. financial network CNBC for the past week. Salon’s Gabriel Winant tuned in to the network to see what the fuss was about. He left with his head spinning.
On Monday, at 8:30 a.m., I turned on CNBC and started watching the business channel for the first time in my life. Twelve hours later, a long stare through the peacock-colored looking glass had shaken me. I was huddled in the corner of my living room couch, arms hugging my knees, wondering why the angry faces on-screen were yelling at me.
Since the dawn of the Obama administration, not even two months ago, CNBC has become notorious as a redoubt of talking — no, shouting — heads who insist that the market is tanking because the new president is an incompetent lefty. A Bolshevik even, according to Bloviator-in-Chief Jim Cramer. A squish who hands out free mortgage do-overs to “losers,” according to Chicago trading-floor populist Rick Santelli. Twice in the past week, “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart has responded with blistering mash-ups of the same talking heads talking out of their behinds. Larry Kudlow and Jim Cramer and others were seen, in CNBC footage assembled by “The Daily Show,” making absurd, toxic and ultimately tragic predictions about how awesomely awesome the market was about to be, how Bear Stearns would never fail, how turnaround was coming, how it was time to buy. Maria Bartiromo and various on-air soldier ants were also shown sucking up to assorted titans of business in the golden days before the recession began to seem like something worse.
Jim Cramer has responded by noting, angrily, that Jon Stewart is a comedian, which apparently makes Stewart unqualified to judge when someone is making a fool of himself. But rather than rely on “The Daily Show” for our opinions, even though we usually do, we at Salon decided to spend a day glued to CNBC and judge the network for ourselves. That is, my boss made me watch it.
What I found was a paradox at the channel’s core — one that seemed, late on the afternoon of Monday, March 9, to make Jim Cramer want to claw his own skin off. The station’s business model rests on its claim to insider wisdom and market smarts. CNBC’s army of analysts marshals a host of data to tell the daily story of the markets in the language of the markets. From that angle, the disorienting effect that hours of watching had on me is not surprising: I only sort of understand what derivatives are. No wonder my head was spinning.
At the same time, however, the network depends on a particular industry, and thrives on good economic news, which is in short supply. Nobody wants to tune in to cable day after day to hear yet another dirge for yet another one of their stocks. There is a financial imperative for the pundits to keep their core audience of investors coming back, and therefore an obligation for the pundits to distort empirical reality to make a grim future seem manageable. Or, as one commercial puts it, “In an unpredictable market, one man has the answers, the vision, the experience you can trust. In Cramer we trust.”
And yet the financial future is starting to seem unmanageable, even to the all-knowing pundits of CNBC. Someone must be to blame. Thus the essence of CNBC circa 2009 is an uneasy mixture of despair and boosterism, made to cohere with the liberal application of pure venom. And the venom is directed at the most convenient target: Barack Obama.