14 March 2009

Sleeping with the Enemy?

Since I met Jon Stewart once, fleetingly, in a hallway at the CBS Broadcast Center in the mid-1990s, he’s fair game for one of my “Portraits” essays in this space. What I learned about him at that time wasn’t much, though — he’s short, he’s nervous, he’s handsome — and so I keep putting off any longer meditation on the Daily Show host. His interview Thursday night with the CNBC personality Jim Cramer, however, provokes comment now, and not only because everyone else in the American-speaking universe seems to be weighing in on the encounter. In reading some of other people’s commentary, I keep missing something important.

Though Stewart did an admirable job of assembling and presenting his arguments, channeling populist rage, and striving to avoid personalizing his remarks (to make it clear that Cramer wasn’t his only target), he danced around the essential point he had to make: namely, that shows like Cramer’s present themselves as news programs, and are carried on what present themselves as news networks, yet they fail to engage in the journalistic fundamentals of reporting, follow-up questioning, and investigation. Shows like Cramer’s (and the late Crossfire, with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala) arouse Stewart’s ire because they don’t admit — as Stewart does of his own program — that they’re fake news. Such dishonesty, Stewart says, is “hurting this country.”

In his interview with Cramer, Stewart hammered home on the uneasy relationship between journalist and source: if a reporter challenges the source, there’s a very good chance the source will never grant the reporter another interview, and favor some more pliant reporter instead. All journalism is competitive, and the prospect of losing a scoop to another news outlet is daunting to anybody. The greater danger, however, is to accept a source’s statements without question. Stewart in recent days has provided a score of damning examples of CNBC’s failures in this regard; Cramer portrayed himself as a victim of lies and spin, which he doubtless was. The superior alternative — which Stewart only vaguely articulated — is never to treat any statement as more than part of the story.

Unfortunately, in the current environment of 24-hour news cycles and reduced staffing in both print and electronic journalism, following up on a source’s statements is more difficult. Investigative journalism requires long hours, during which the reporter seldom files other stories: if your boss is standing over your desk, wondering why you’re not performing up to your quota, and he’s got a short list of potential layoffs in one hand, you’re going to be disinclined to take extra time. And, as Stewart repeatedly pointed out, reporters under pressure are less likely to ask follow-up questions, more likely to throw softballs.

Most of the singers I write about, including Susan Graham (whom I heard Thursday night), don’t need my help to look good.
They do that just by showing up.

I’ve thrown more than a few softballs in my own time, and I’ve felt uncomfortable about the chumminess of relationships with the people I’ve covered, or helped to cover. At Opera News, I am most certainly promoting the people I interview and the work they do: it’s part of the magazine’s mission to stimulate interest in opera. A protocol or etiquette sets in, and I have not (for example) checked the financial statements of Houston Grand Opera when writing a profile on its then-director, David Gockley, and I took at face value his remarks about his future with the company. A few months later, he resigned from HGO and took the directorship of San Francisco Opera. He may not have been fully candid with me, though I didn’t take that personally. It’s even possible that he didn’t know at the time that he would be making his departure.

The ethical question remained: had I disserved the magazine’s readers? Probably so. I should have dug deeper, asked around, to confirm his intention to stay in Houston. Did my lapse make much difference? Probably not. The overriding concern in such a story is the art form, not the activities of its proponents, and the magazine and I share a vested interest in seeing more people interested in opera, listening to music, and attending performances — because strength lies in numbers. If readers aren’t turned on to opera, they don’t go, and eventually, we won’t go, either, because no one will present operas anymore. Opera News is not least a recruitment tool, written propaganda in an ongoing campaign for musical hearts and minds.

Unfortunately, I’ve interviewed a few singers who didn’t quite grasp that I’m not trying to make them look bad. (On the contrary! It helps that I’ve never covered anyone whom I didn’t believe to be worth hearing, and the vast majority are good actors, too.) Maybe some of these singers have been burned by critics and reporters in Europe, where cultural journalism is more adversarial. Whatever the reason, though, they have treated me warily, as if I were a crew from 60 Minutes preparing a story on tainted food and convinced that they’ve got something to hide.

Political, consumer, and financial reporting are different, because money and lives are at stake. Nothing should be taken at face value, and we’ve seen the results when reporters forget that: the build-up to the Iraq war and the financial crisis are only the most obvious examples. Sweet-talking a source is risky but necessary business, and both the reporter and the reportee must remain aware that, no matter how friendly an interview may seem at the time, it may be followed by less cordial behavior. The Congressman with quotable remarks and unerring leads may tomorrow denounce the press. The reporter who gets your name in the paper as a crusader one day may tomorrow reveal that you’re a crook.

My experience in political journalism was always among the biggest players (and I was at something of a remove, at the side of the reporter, never asking the questions myself), who surely understood the rules of the game. A certain degree of buttering-up went on, on both sides. The complicity was mutually beneficial. The politician realizes that publicity will mean that his constituents will know of the work he’s doing on their behalf, and thus be more likely to return him to office or to propel him to a higher one. The reporter gets information, which translates immediately into more air-time or column inches, and perhaps to a big scoop or promotion in the longer term.

Yet some of the dewdrops exchanged smelled foul, to my nostrils, and carried the whiff of those orgies of incest and insincerity that Stephen Colbert exposed at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a few years ago. Why do we engage in this ethically suspect behavior? Whom are we trying to please? Whom are we fooling? Are we supposed to be fooling anybody? In whose interest, really, are we working?

That was a question Stewart raised, and it resonated for me even as it seemed to abash Mr. Cramer.* As I say, I wish Stewart had gone a bit further in this line, articulating more clearly the approach he favors and why it’s at such variance from CNBC’s approach. Surely even the big corporate media outlets are worried by the potential consequences of current economic trends; surely they’d find useful a more cogent reminder that adherence to fundamentals leads to integrity leads to public trust — which leads to staying in business.

The interview and the buildup to it generated a great deal of comment — enough that I made a point of finding the interview on-line and of reading the coverage, both by professionals and by amateurs. Most of the comment has focused on the “sorry state of the times, when a comedian is a better journalist than a journalist”; I think that falls short of grasping the point, not least since Stewart doesn’t play by the rules (and admits it). Yet it’s undeniable that Jon Stewart practices one fundamental brilliantly: he listens to the people he interviews, and adapts his line of questioning to the nature of their responses, even when he’s fawning over them. He’s quick-witted and usually well-informed (he actually reads a book before speaking with its author). That doesn’t make him a Murrow for our times. But he’s gotten more Americans talking about journalistic ethics, over the past week, than anyone else has in years.

*Somebody advised Cramer awfully well, by the way: he displayed personal courage and integrity just by showing up, took his licks, promised to do better, and didn’t make a fuss. It was a remarkably self-controlled presentation, particularly from a man whose usual on-air persona is that of a shrieking pinball machine. His model seemed to be that of Paul Begala, rather than Tucker Carlson, using Stewart’s Crossfire confrontation as a template, and maybe he’ll make some sincere effort to reform himself, as Begala did.


Anonymous said...

While I enjoy watching Cramer every night, one must remember the show is primarily entertainment. The financial networks exist to promote their advertisers financial and investment products. Who would expect them to warn about the credit bubble or coming Washington national debt collapse which will destroy much of the remaining private wealth in America today or what this will do to the dollar, the stock market, bonds, gold or the real estate market?

China is now worried about their dangerous over investment in US Treasury obligations. Washington ’s long-term choice is either repudiation or monetization. For monetization to be effective, the depreciation in the dollar would have to be substantial and this in turn would dramatically raise prices of imports for American consumers which would mean a tremendous drop in foreign imports. Debt monetization would cause more disruption to exporting nations than selective repudiation of Treasury debt.

The Campaign to Cancel the Washington National Debt By 12/22/2013 Constitutional Amendment is starting now in the U.S. See: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=67594690498&ref=ts


Ron with 30 plus years in the investment business and banking industry.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks. You seem to overlook that, for all their entertainment value, these shows are all fact- and news-based, and most present themselves as news programs. Sure, discriminating viewers can tell the difference, even when the network promotes Cramer as infallible. (Stewart had fun with the CNBC slogan, “In Cramer We Trust.”)

Ultimately, if you like clowns dressed in reporter’s clothing, that’s your affair. I agree with Stewart: this kind of programming is ultimately harmful, if only because it crowds more serious reports off the air.

Anonymous said...

Bill - This was a wonderful and insightful read. Thank you.