Richard Cohen on Jon Stewart’s ‘Cheap Shot’

Many observers praised the Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart for his hard-hitting interview with CNBC‘s Jim Cramer. Columnist Richard Cohen (Washington Post, 3/17/09) begs to differ.

Actually, Stewart was “wrong” to go after Cramer, Cohen wrote–it was a “cheap shot at business media.” His main argument is that Stewart charged that Cramer “knew all the time what was happening” at game-playing financial companies, but Cohen has a list of CEOs at such firms who lost money on their own company’s stock, so even they must not have known what was really going on: “When someone puts his money where his mouth is, you have to pay attention. The big shots believed.” It’s a variation on the “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” argument: If they’re now poor, they must be innocent.

There are several things wrong with this line of reasoning. For one, it’s really not so easy to take the money and run–or else Bernie Madoff would have made off with more of the $65 billion he stole. For companies slightly more legitimate than Madoff’s, there are disclosure requirements that make a CEOs cashing in their stock the surest way to send the value of that stock hurtling toward zero.

And it’s unlikely that any of Cohen’s hard-luck moguls are actually now in the poor house. One of them, Citicorp’s Sanford Weill, is still on Forbes‘ list of the 400 richest people in the world, though his net worth has fallen from $1.8 billion to $1.3 billion. That’s still more than the GDP of 34 countries.

Cohen provides a helpful link to a story about his exhibit A, AIG’s Maurice Greenberg, who lost a billion in stock. That piece ends with this:

Greenberg was forced out of AIG during a controversy in 2005 when the company restated its financial statements for the previous five years, acknowledging accounting improprieties including “improper or inappropriate transactions.”

New York regulators later accused AIG, Greenberg and the company’s former chief financial officer of orchestrating an accounting scheme that made AIG’s financial picture appear brighter than it was, misleading both investors and regulators.

Yeah, in 2005. Not actually very good evidence for Cohen’s “how could anyone have known?” case.

Passing over Cohen’s subsidiary argument that even Cohen himself was fooled by AIG, so what chance did Cramer have, what comes through most strongly in Cohen’s column is his contempt for journalism:

The role that Cramer and other financial journalists played was incidental. There was not much they could do, anyway. They do not have subpoena power. They cannot barge into AIG and demand to see the books, and even if they could, they would not have known what they were looking at.

As Cohen later spells out, this is a variation of the don’t-blame-the-media argument about the Iraq War. The fact is, there were exceptional journalists who pointed out the many holes in the WMD case before the invasion, and there were some economists who recognized that a financial system based on a housing bubble was a house of cards. The fact that Cohen didn’t pay attention to these people doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Cohen should note that Stewart’s point about Cramer knowing that the market was manipulated was based on footage he had gathered of Cramer boasting about how easy it was for him, Cramer, to manipulate the market. And Stewart didn’t need subpoena power to get it.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.