16 March 2009

On Cramer vs. Stewart, Corporate Leadership, CNBC, and a Pivotal Moment

I'll admit that I find Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's Mad Money, entertaining. Cramer is entertaining in the same way as those old "Crazy Eddie" ads: "He's IN-sane!"

Cramer's enthusiasm and showmanship is fun to watch and his crazy antics are amusing -- throwing pies at CEOs on his Wall of Shame, punching buttons like a carnival barker to generate hoots, hollers, and recorded noises and phrases.

But as Jon Stewart said in his skewerview of the frenetic host, Cramer is a snake oil salesman.

To the extent that he taught folks how to think about investing, that was a good thing. And in his defense, Cramer often warned retail investors to do their homework, to only buy stock in companies they understand and whose products they use, and to be diversified.

That a majority of his viewers didn't take his advice and just bought when he punched the "Buy, buy buy" button or sold at "Sell, sell, sell," it's probably their own damned fault.

But it's the larger picture that really bothers me. CNBC's business model seemed to be based on the cult of the CEO, wealth-worship, and a hubris of growth. They forsook journalism for entertainment.

And this was clear from Cramer's response to Stewart's taunts on the subject: "CEOs lied to me." To which Stewart quipped something like "What happened to Journalism 101?" You don't take their word for it; you investigate further.

I stopped watching CNBC late last summer. I couldn't take it anymore. The smarmy hosts of Squawk Box every morning were two-headed beasts, simultaneously crying "The sky is falling," while licking the loafers of the parade of CEOs and other executives who were the proverbial wolves in sheep's clothing.

As it turns out, most of the CEOs were lying or at least not being entirely truthful -- or worse, they were really clueless themselves.

Our collective rage was unleashed by Jon Stewart on the nonplussed Jim Cramer. Cramer was our scapegoat and his mea culpa and pleas of I'll try to do better seemed genuine. I didn't see his show the day after the Stewart interview, but that would have been an opportunity for him to apologize to his viewers and begin to make amends. I understand that it was just more of the same.

It's too bad, because I really think we're at a pivotal moment. We have an opportunity to shift the way companies are run, journalism is practiced, and business is pursued. We should seize this opportunity to fire the bums and create a new standard of trust and transparency for CEOs, the journalists who cover them, and the consumers who buy their stock, products, or watch their programs.

Otherwise, this will be a missed opportunity and all that rage expressed by Jon Stewart will have been just another play for ratings. (Which I'm sure it was in part.)

A sustainable economy will require a new kind of CEO and a new relationship between companies and the media that writes about them. It will also require that we as consumers and viewers take more responsibility for doing our homework and maintaining a healthy skepticism.

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