March 13, 2009

This Song Ain't About You

The media has doused itself in the drama and heartache that is the current global economic recession. You can't read a New York Times column or watch a Today show segment without some reference to "these uncertain times." Column after column states the reasons behind this unprecedented global financial disarray and the immeasurable nature of our nation's future . As a frequent indulger of these pundits opinions, I felt, yes, they are making a point, but I think we need more justice. Populism, here we come! Justice arrived in the form of the showdown last week between The Daily Show's Jon Stewart and Mad Money's Jim Cramer on Stewart's show. Their encounter blazed across the airwaves and the headlines of several major media sources in the following days, prompting web surfers to send clips of the interview across Twitter and Facebook, making it highly mainstream and front and center in the webscape. As a media dilettante, I found this moment to be monumental in the landscape of recent media commentary on the economic crevasse in which we find ourselves.

Stewart exhibited a perfect blend of visceral anger and informed restraint:"I understand you want to make finance entertaining but it's not a fucking game. I see that and it tells me that you all know. You can draw a line from those shenanigans to what happened at Bear [Sterns]. We're getting that you knew what the banks were doing and were touting it for months."

Cramer pleads for his earnest news coverage, a defense falling on Stewart's deaf ears, which only hear Cramer as a "dew-eyed innocent." Cramer's defense becomes more and more about himself and his network, to which Stewart rebukes, "As Carly Simon would say, " this song ain't about you."

That's right. As a journalist, the song of your story should be to inform your readers so that they might live their lives in a fuller, more intelligent manner and ideally, help make the world a better place through the knowledge gained from your reporting. End of story. The Huffington Post's Daniel Sinker wrote a spot-on article about how the Stewart/Cramer debate was not just about CNBC, but about the fallen integrity of modern media. This reproach has been a long time coming and finally someone with the right kind of leverage (Stewart) is doing his due diligence to keep our news sources in check.

Reporting the news should always be about providing the truth (as close to the actual truth as possible and not some quasi-truth that CNBC ripped off from the back of a dollar bill) and not numbing readers' minds with marketing speak controlled by the bureaucratic barons that run many of our "trusted" news programs and publications. As a reader, don't you dare serve me a story with a side of spin (and if anyone thinks that Bill O'Reilly had anything close to a "No-Spin Zone," s/he should be taken for a MRI, STAT!), although I know the challenges of objectivity in human reporting.

Another point of journalistic contention, to which Cramer alludes in his defense, is the alienation of sources. Cramer and the other CNBC ringleaders interview CEOs and other finance giants, taking their comments at face value. Stewart's chastisement of this journalistic irresponsibility is completely justified. However, I do think this challenge is very real and arguable. Last weekend, I had this exact discussion with a friend of a friend, who works as a financial reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She walks the fine line between getting to the meat of her story and respecting the "sanctity" of her sources. "If I alienate them by exposing unflattering aspects of their story, they, and possibly others, will refute my story and possible impede my future reporting."

Despite the changing face of the news media that will mostly likely result in a fractional number of employment opportunities. I do hope that I will once again be able to consider myself a journalist (I worked for the trade publication, Healthcare IT News from 2005-2007). I would be proud, with a tinge of irony, to follow in the footsteps and media mores of that insatiable faux journalist, Mr. Jon Stewart, smartest and, and, dare I say bravest man on television.

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