It's like shooting a very loud fish in a barrel:
Since the dawn of the Obama administration, not even two months ago, CNBC has become notorious as a redoubt of talking -- no, shouting -- heads who insist that the market is tanking because the new president is an incompetent lefty. A Bolshevik even, according to Bloviator-in-Chief Jim Cramer. A squish who hands out free mortgage do-overs to "losers," according to Chicago trading-floor populist Rick Santelli. Twice in the past week, "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart has responded with blistering mash-ups of the same talking heads talking out of their behinds. Larry Kudlow and Jim Cramer and others were seen, in CNBC footage assembled by "The Daily Show," making absurd, toxic and ultimately tragic predictions about how awesomely awesome the market was about to be, how Bear Stearns would never fail, how turnaround was coming, how it was time to buy. Maria Bartiromo and various on-air soldier ants were also shown sucking up to assorted titans of business in the golden days before the recession began to seem like something worse.
Jim Cramer has responded by noting, angrily, that Jon Stewart is a comedian, which apparently makes Stewart unqualified to judge when someone is making a fool of himself.
...By now, I have noticed that I speak a different language than the people on this channel. Or maybe I'm just not as smart as they are. "I've decided that flat is the new up," declares one talking head. "If they can't get their heads together, there's no way we're going to get meat on the bone," warns another. Their braying seems to mean something to their target audience, but not to me. Even most-esteemed sage Warren Buffett wasn't immune. He spoke in an un-CNBC-like volume, but said things like, "It's a lot better to have a goose that keeps laying eggs than a goose that just sits there and eats insurance."
...Then Jim Cramer stops by at the end of her show, and turns in one of the more tortured and conflicted television performances I have ever seen. He personifies, in his very body, the war between boosterism and reality that lends CNBC such an air of anxiety. ... "Every night," he barks, "I try to come out and say something good, but it's difficult. It's difficult, because it spits in the face of people who've lost so much."
Cramer is in pain, and he's taking it out on Burnett. By the end of six of the more excruciating minutes I've witnessed on television, Burnett was scrambling for a graceful way out.
..."Fast Money" comes on after Bartiromo, to kill an hour until the network's true stars come out at 6. The show professes to arm its viewers with insight and analysis gleaned from the day's gyrations. "Faster than a New York minute, Dylan Ratigan and the 'Fast Money' traders give you the information normally reserved for the Wall Street trading floor," promises the Web site. This claim might be true, if the Wall Street trading floor is secretly run by Lewis Carroll. The hosts have all affected epithets like "the Commissioner," "the Pit Boss" and "the Ambassador." And they seemed, to an outsider's ear, to speak nonsense, at an auctioneer's manic pace, with exclamation points. "Look at Google at 290!" snapped the Ambassador. "Did you buy it?" beeped a voice off-screen. "I did look at it, I didn't buy a share!" "Why not?" "I like to look at it!"
Then the Commissioner explained it all. "One company's going to buy another company, and this company's going to buy the company that's going to buy that company."
After "Fast Money," it's time for the channel's marquee names to explain what it all means. At 6 o'clock Eastern, 90 minutes after the closing bell, Cramer is back on camera, this time as the host of his own show, "Mad Money."
...Never having seen the show before, I'm astonished, even though Cramer's conniptions earlier in the day should've warned me. I thought the whole premise was that Cramer had a compass, and knew where he was taking us. Jon Stewart's whole point in his criticisms of Cramer was that the guy gets things wrong all the damn time. Yet the show depends on his almost violent assertion of his own authority. He has to acknowledge that he's been wrong if he wants to seem like a serious analyst, but he also has to keep pointing the way forward. A caller asks him if it's a good time for new investors to break in. Cramer says there's no hard-and-fast rule, we've got to go case-by-case, and then, without missing a beat, or seeking any further information, says, "Buy Verizon."
Nobody knows what they're doing, but hey, here's what you should do. How can CNBC square this circle? The answer is, as Jon Stewart called it, cheap populism. That's where Barack Obama comes in.
According to CNBC's evening punditocracy, nightly tasked with explaining why another day has ended in the toilet, it's not the market's fault, it's the government. Cramer warns that the Obama administration might cause another Great Depression, accuses the administration of "wealth destruction," and compares Obama's cap-and-trade carbon pricing scheme to the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee.
...Economist Larry Kudlow, whose hour-long "Kudlow & Company" follows "Mad Money" Monday through Friday at 7 Eastern, has even less shame than Cramer. Kudlow accuses Obama of "waging war against businesses and investors and entrepreneurs." He tees up guest Art Laffer, a wholly discredited economist, who claims, "The political process started in late 2007. Since that time, the markets have been down 55 percent. Markets are forward-looking, not backward-looking. They saw what was coming in the election. They were anticipating what this guy would do, and they caused a slowdown."
Got that? It's not our fault none of the models are working. The economy collapsed because the government broke it. Buy Verizon. If it goes up, Cramer and Kudlow and Santelli are geniuses. If it goes down, it's Obama's fault. Either way CNBC wins.
CNBC's audience is not a demographic cross section of America. If it was a cross section, the network wouldn't make any money; CNBC attracts advertisers not with the size of its audience but with its maleness and its affluence. The network gets about a quarter million viewers a day, a tiny fraction of the U.S. population, but those viewers have a median household net worth of more than $1.2 million. Still, the financial pundits flatter viewers into thinking, as Rick Santelli put it during his famous trading floor rant, that they are "a pretty good statistical cross-section of America." For these guys, investors are America. Jim Cramer asked at one point, of the Obama administration, "Who do they think owns stocks?" As if the obvious answer is, "Everybody!" Obama, Cramer complained, "seemed proud that he ignored the [market] averages, as if they're some sort of distraction, and not a precursor of the economy."
I'm not going to argue that the Dow Jones is irrelevant to the economy, but the fundamental problem of the bubble years was that the Dow Jones was growing and our actual assets were not. We weren't really getting richer. We were just pretending to get richer.
In mistaking themselves for the country at large, and the bouncing of the market for the health of the economy as a whole, Cramer, Kudlow and the whole talking-head crew give the lie to Rick Santelli's assertion about a "silent majority." CNBC feels like bizarro world because, in an important sense, it is.