Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

02 Apr 2009, 8:35 a.m.

If You Read This To The End You Get To See Inside My Marriage

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I watched the interview Jon Stewart did with Jim Cramer a few weeks ago. If you're the kind of person who loves Jon Stewart's work, you probably heard about it.

Stewart's key critiques of CNBC:

Financial news that focuses on short term profits and stock tips is an unhealthy market force. Financial reporting has a responsibility to be skeptical of too-good-to-be-true profits and investigate companies and trends that produce them. Finance experts who know about a house of cards have a responsibility to tell the public. It's irresponsible to cheerlead unsustainable bull markets, persuading laypeople to invest in "responsible" retirement plans, then blame evil CEOs and weak regulators after the inevitable crash. Saying people can get wealth without doing work to create value is disingenuous and possibly criminal.

Salon followed up on many of these substantive critiques, not just following the blast and noise of Media Titan Confrontation. "On "Mad Money," Cramer back to normal": he was contrite on the Daily Show, then the next day he minimized the whole thing and kept on doing his normal schtick. More insidiously, "There's nothing unique about Jim Cramer: The mindless complicity in disseminating false claims is not aberrational media behavior; it is, as they acknowledge, the crux of what they do." Greenwald compares recent finance reporting to prewar Iraq reporting.*

Stewart's most controversial point, and one that hasn't been discussed as much in the mass media, is in the last part of my summary: cheerleading unsustainable bull markets, and encouraging investment rather than work as a way to wealth, is wrong. His words:

But isn't that part of the problem? Selling this idea that you don't have to do anything. Anytime you sell people the idea that sit back and you'll get 10 to 20 percent on your money, don't you always know that that's going to be a lie? When are we going to realize in this country that our wealth is work. That we're workers and by selling this idea that of "Hey man, I'll teach you how to be rich," how is that any different than an infomercial?

"Our wealth is work...we're workers." I asked Leonard to help me figure out why, when a political candidate praises work and workers, it sounds like cant, but Stewart's phrasing felt subversive. He pointed out that the word "workers" and identification with the working class remind people of Marxism. Oh yeah, that. Also, "wealth" usually means earnings and/or capital -- cash, real estate, securities, some financial instrument or an item that can be sold in the open market for cash. But Stewart is saying that our wealth, the prize that we've earned, isn't money, but our ability to earn money. Our asset is the ability to create assets.

Again, identification with the working class. But it's a short step from that to rabble-raising populist demagoguery, which Stewart and Colbert make fun of. A lot. Possibly while engaging in it.

'You say ... I want to keep this homicidal fury forever!' [side-annotation: Hysteria, Our Only Growth Industry] 'But, Stephen, your Thunderdome idea will kill all the CEOs, and there'll be no one left to force through the man-sized paper shredder!' But I say: we will never run out of scapegoats. Because if we focus on pitchforks and vengeance, instead of the fundamental problems that got us here, soon, we'll have plenty of new criminal banks and irresponsible CEOs to start all over again. And we can cry 'Off with their heads!' -- and we'll never have to keep ours.

I get annoyed that the TDS/TCR audience cheers so loud, gilding the lily at every punchline. But sometimes their silence is a tell. When Stewart tossed off that key phrase, "our wealth is work," and when Colbert made his point about scapegoating, the audience was too stunned to clap. This reminds me of a similar moment from Colbert's interview with Daniel Gilbert, happiness expert, June 27, 2007, about 3:45 into the interview:

DG: "It turns out that kids have a very small effect on people's happiness, and the effect tends to be negative. But you'd be happy to hear-"

SC: "Wait wait wait..."

DG: "Well, it means that people with children tend to be a little less happy than people without them, and the more children they have, the less happy they turn out to be."

SC: "Now, are you confusing happiness with the feeling of the sublime? Because children are a pain in the ass. Okay, I'll grant you that. But the feeling that comes with children, I have found, is a feeling of -- that is superior to happiness."

DG: "Yeah, of course."

SC: "That is the sublime feeling. And the sublime comes from beauty."

DG: "The happiness that children give you is a little like the refrigerator light. Every time you look, it's on. Every time you think about your kids, you're happy. The problem is, they're a pain in the ass more often than you're thinking about them."

SC: "Well, that's interesting."

So this is a big shaggy dog story where I end up trying to convince Leonard, who enjoys Colbert but doesn't like to watch the interviews, to start watching the whole show. Because sometimes stuff like that comes out, where you see the real Colbert peek through, this witty improv-loving geek with a background in Catholicism and Tolkien. Basically, it's the Brendan Leonard show!

* Salon, ProPublica, New Assignment, and similar ventures are trying to do good journalism that avoids the inherent blindspots of traditional mass media. In a similar vein, I'm fond of Fred Clark's suggestion that a Work section replace the Business section.


02 Apr 2009, 11:25 a.m.

I enjoyed this post. I will have to watch the interview, post April-15th.

02 Apr 2009, 12:37 p.m.

I actually have pretty much the same habit--I'll watch TDS, then a segment or two of Colbert until I get tired of the personality schtick, and go into the office to write while Kara watches the interview (where the personality schtick is strongest). This is a pretty convincing essay!

Sumana Harihareswara
02 Apr 2009, 15:58 p.m.

John: Thanks for your response! You could just skim a transcript if you wanted a quick break.<br/>

<br/>Brendan: so the real Brendan Leonard show is whatever you & Leonard get up to while Kara and I are watching the interview.