The “fake” news man is anything but fake. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is, in fact, one of the most media literate programs on television. On a number of levels. This past Thursday night Stewart proved, once again, his journalistic chops by chopping off another journalist at the knees. By now many people have seen or at least heard about Stewart’s recent verbal whipping of CNBC’s so-called finance guru Jim Cramer in a long interview on Stewart’s late night program. With his usual deft logic, verbal acuity, solid grasp of the big picture and the details–not to mention charm-coated persistence–Jon Stewart relentlessly plugged Cramer with accusatory ammunition.
Cramer, exposed as a liar at best, and big finance fraud whore at worst, squirmed a little bit as he was forced to watch clips of himself admitting on camera–though not on his program–to understanding various back-room financial shenanigans, and to misleading audience by leaving out crucial pieces of information. Those clips and his actual on-air admissions to Stewart laid bare what the agenda of “Mad Money” has been all about. Under the guise of financial journalism, Cramer’s been shilling for finance biggies like Bear Stearn’s and their ilk while pretending, on CNBC, to be looking out for the best financial interests of us little guys who rely on information from financial “journalists” to give us the information we need to not only understand the financial markets and economy at large, but also to make good decisions about our personal finances. But no one’s blamed guys like Cramer for contributing to the financial dump we’re in except Stewart.
Who else but Stewart goes after this kind of stuff in journalistic interviews? The Daily Show is media literate in one sense because Jon Stewart understands how to use the format of news programming, the conventions of journalism, and the attitude of journalists themselves to uncover and critique the same. But he does it in such a way that it’s both funny and brilliant. And, on top of that, he interviews better and bolder than almost all other journalists on television. He understands the form, shows us the form, and improves on the form. He’s making us more savvy news watchers. This is a valuable form of media literacy.
So why did Cramer agree to go head to head with Stewart on The Daily show in the first place? My guess is that his ego couldn’t take the beating Stewart had been giving him for several nights before he went on. He was smart enough to understand that an invitation from Stewart, who’s cultural cache is as solid as his following, was to be jumped at. But he wasn’t smart enough to get that Stewart is smarter than he is, and he doesn’t get the purpose of the program, which goes way beyond news parody. Watching Cramer perform on the Daily Show, you’re convinced that the guy is used to having to dance around a bit, lie at the drop of a hat, and keep acting as if he’s without responsibility, even seconds after he’s admitted fault. A guy like that isn’t going to understand the world empathically, the way Stewart does. He just may not understand what happened to him on the program the other night. He’s just not smart enough.
But Stewart is smart enough, and clearly concerned enough about how the rest of us get and use information about finances and markets. We can’t get down to Wall Street everyday, and the vast majority of us don’t have insider information on trading. By exposing this face of the financial mess, Jon Stewart is giving us another dose of media literacy–on the finance front. He’s not afraid to show us that CNBC isn’t doing it’s job, that they’ve not been reporting the whole thing, that lots of news organizations are guilty of the same thing. It’s not just bad mortgages that have created this financial mess. It’s bigger than that, deeper than that. In the end it reaches back to the quality and the format of information we get.
Our only safeguard is understanding how the media operate. And that includes why, when, and for whom. That’s a big chunk of media literacy. Thank goodness someone in media gets that.
–Katherine G. Fry