Jeff Zucker and the CNBC straw man

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Arriving days late to the scene of the crash, NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker last week belatedly tried to resuscitate the corporation's hobbled and humiliated all-business channel, claiming that the tongue-lashing CNBC's Jim Cramer famously received at the hands of Jon Stewart had been "incredibly unfair" and "absurd."

Arriving days late to the scene of the crash, NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker last week belatedly tried to resuscitate the corporation's hobbled and humiliated all-business channel, claiming that the tongue-lashing CNBC's Jim Cramer famously received at the hands of Jon Stewart had been "incredibly unfair" and "absurd."

Suggesting it is simply human nature for people to seek out a scapegoat when things go bad, Zucker insisted CNBC was not to blame for the country's current financial woes. (Straw man alert: I'm not sure anyone's saying that it is.) Zucker stood by CNBC, saying the news outlet had done a "tremendous" job covering the markets in recent years.

That kind of corporate defense wasn't a surprise. What was curious, though, was how Zucker tried to deflect the criticism of CNBC by repeatedly making references to the "business media" -- suggesting CNBC's public thrashing was part of a larger, misguided campaign to vilify the press. "I thought it was incredibly unfair to CNBC and to the business media in general," Zucker stressed. "I don't think you can blame what's happened here on the business media. ... [T]o suggest that the business media or CNBC was responsible for what is going on now is absurd."

Laying out his public defense at an annual media forum co-sponsored by BusinessWeek, CNBC's corporate boss seemed to be trying to rally the troops in hopes of forming a business media pity party: They're attacking us unfairly!

Save it, Zucker.

I doubt editors and writers at Forbes or Fortune or BusinessWeek want anything to do with the type of on-air nonsense CNBC often packages under the guise of financial journalism. In fact, Columbia Journalism Review noted how CNBC is held in low regard among business journalists. (It's "really despised.") Why?

Its lack of a line between opinion and reporting (and lack of disclosure about who's a reporter and who's not). It s Siamese-twin closeness to Wall Street. Its rah-rah rooting for the stock markets. Its inanity in interviews that too often veers into sycophancy.

Ever since September, when the markets began to collapse and credit lines froze up, there's been an ongoing discussion about what the business press did and did not do well during the boom years in terms of keeping a watchful eye on America's financial community. Meaning, did the glossy business press prize access to executives over insightful reporting, and was there too much cheerleading and not enough actual financial journalism? That's an important debate, and CNBC was certainly among the early targets for its lapdog approach to covering The Street and the supposed titans who ran it. As Cenk Uygur wrote at The Huffington Post:

CNBC never did any exposés about the enormous risks these financial companies took. They never exposed the insanity of the derivatives market. And they never told their audience that the executives of these companies have been robbing their shareholders blind. Because they didn't see that as their job. They saw their job as doing whatever it took to keep Wall Street happy and playing ball with them.

But the reason CNBC remains at the center of controversy today, and the reason it's taking on water in a way that other prominent business news outlets aren't in 2009, is that its recent behavior has become so much more shameless and egregious than everybody else's. With its constant stream of on-air misinformation (and borderline demagoguery) about the administration's bailout plans -- from Jim Cramer's intimations that President Obama has communist leanings to Rick Santelli's ignorant, faux-populist right-wing rant -- CNBC has been setting a new standard in irresponsibility this year, an outlandish standard the rest of the business media has mostly avoided.

CNBC executives will likely never live down the NBC family's decision to actually promote Santelli's fact-free, right-wing rant, which trampled all over every conceivable journalistic guideline for a financial reporter, and which reached new heights of absurdity when he claimed the traders assembled around him, all of whom were white men, represented a good "cross-section of America." That decision was the shot from the starting pistol that marked the larger, Stewart-led CNBC pile-on, a pile-on that remains completely justified and quite satisfying to watch.

CNBC's recent meltdown only highlights how dreadfully it performed pre-collapse. With its often god-awful analysis, CNBC really was, as one financial writer recently put it, "the network that surely did its part showing people the way to the bottom." For a taste, here are some lowlights from CNBC star host Larry Kudlow:

  • "Too much is being made of both the sub-prime credit problem and the housing downturn." [November 21, 2007]
  • "The recession debate is over. It's not gonna happen. Time to move on." [December 5, 2007]
  • "There's no recession coming. The pessimistas were wrong. It's not going to happen." [December 7, 2007]
  • "We are in a slow patch. That's all. It's nothing to get up in arms about." [February 5, 2008]
  • "The reality is a possible upturn in the housing trend, and at the very least we are getting a bottom." [July 24, 2008]

I'll be nice and limit the citations, but you get the idea. Lots of people at CNBC blew it. And so did lots of overpaid members of the business media.

But now, rather than keeping its head down and showing a little humility for missing the biggest financial news event in half a century, which is what the rest of the A-list business press seems to be doing as newsrooms redouble their efforts to make sense of the current economic calamity, CNBC inexplicably puffed out its chest this winter and started strutting around like it knew what the hell it was talking about. Like it had all the answers. And like those newbies in the White House didn't have a clue.

It wasn't a Fortune or Forbes or BusinessWeek columnist who appeared on NBC's Today and attacked Obama's "radical agenda" and claimed it was "the most, greatest wealth destruction I've seen by a president." That was CNBC's Cramer, who also claimed that under Obama, "no stocks can be considered truly free from danger" and warned viewers to "Obama-proof that portfolio -- like bomb-proof."

After the White House pushed back, suggesting Cramer had no evidence to back the wild charge, the Mad Money host claimed his "wealth destruction" allegation was legit because of how the stock markets had "been clobbered mercilessly since Obama's inauguration."

And that really became CNBC's overriding message and theme: that the new administration was destroying investors' faith in the market. Demanding to know whether Obama was "paying attention to the market" and whether he even "understand[s] it," a CNBC anchor claimed indignantly that "everybody who's investing in the market has lost 12 years of their life."

CNBC's editorial staff seemed to have awakened from its eight-year slumber just in time to realize that it was Democrats who wrecked the economy. Indeed, according to CNBC's money guru and his radical "wealth destruction" rhetoric, stocks had been hammered, on perhaps an unprecedented level, since Obama took office.

Except, of course, that they hadn't. At least not compared to the stock drops suffered under President Bush. For instance, in the less than six weeks between September 19, 2008, and October 27, 2008, the Dow lost 3,055 points. And between October 10, 2007, and November 20, 2008, the Dow lost a staggering 6,526 points on Bush's watch. By contrast, between January 21 and March 3, when Cramer lobbed his false claim against Obama, the Dow had lost 1,223 points.

Did an extraordinary amount of wealth get destroyed via the stock markets during Bush's tenure? Absolutely. Yet CNBC's Cramer only appeared on Today to blame Obama by name for comparatively modest Dow declines. (And speaking of wealth destruction, if you followed Cramer's "buy" and "sell" stock tips between May 2008 and December 2008, you would have lost 35 percent on your investment.)

And on and on the attacks came from Cramer. As Media Matters previously noted, Cramer this year repeatedly characterized Obama and congressional Democrats as Russian communists, claiming Obama is "taking cues from Lenin" and using terms such as "Bolshevik," "Marx," "comrades," "Soviet," "Winter Palace," and "Politburo" to describe Democrats.

And it hasn't just been Cramer. CNBC's Maria Bartiromo falsely suggested that Obama has proposed taxing small-business revenue. CNBC news anchor Melissa Francis announced she wouldn't vote for Obama's stimulus package. Host Joe Kernen mocked Obama as having been "hijacked by those -- the crazy -- by [Nancy] Pelosi, by [Harry] Reid" and described Obama's budget as "far left." During the same segment, reporter Carl Quintanilla said of Obama's budget, "There is some social engineering going on." Kernen also falsely claimed that Obama had promised to eliminate earmarks.

CNBC host Erin Burnett announced there were "interesting" and "serious" ideas in an op-ed Rush Limbaugh wrote for The Wall Street Journal about how he'd fix the economy. (His remedy: slash capital gains taxes. No, really.) In the op-ed, Limbaugh suggested that if the government did nothing, this recession would pretty much fix itself. That's the column Burnett heralded as "interesting" and "serious."

And now we've suddenly got a showcase CNBC host reportedly eyeing public office in Connecticut as a Republican while bashing away at the new Democratic administration each night, and even criticizing -- on-air -- the Connecticut pol the host wants to unseat.

And did we mention the idiotic Santelli episode? In terms of newsroom standards, it's like Fox News run amok over at CNBC.

And that, Jeff Zucker, is the real problem.

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