Richard Cohen defends financial execs & business media; blasts Stewart

Once again, Richard Cohen devotes his Washington Post column to attacking a ... comedian. Worse, he is again attacking a comedian for having higher expectations for journalism than he does.

In 2006, when Stephen Colbert delivered a devastating take-down of the political media during his performance at the White House correspondents dinner, Cohen blasted Colbert. Here's how I described it at the time:

This week, Cohen blasted comedian Stephen Colbert, whose performance at the White House correspondents' dinner skewered guests from President Bush to the journalists who invited him. Cohen's complaint? Colbert was too hard on Bush, even going so far as to make “jokes about Bush's approval rating, which hovers in the middle 30s.” Oh, the horror! By comparison, Cohen never uttered a word of complaint about Bush's own performance at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association in 2004, which featured Bush making jokes about the weapons of mass destruction he falsely told America were the reason why he sent thousands of our troops to die in Iraq. In other words, to Richard Cohen, joking about your false claims that got Americans killed is fine -- but joking about the low poll numbers of a president who made false claims that got Americans killed is being a “bully.” Perhaps that isn't surprising; Cohen, after all is one of the ever-shrinking number of people who still don't think Bush knowingly made a false case for war. He even went so far as to defend the Bush administration's outing of a covert CIA agent as “what Washington does day in and day out.”

And now Richard Cohen is upset that Jon Stewart made Jim Cramer and the financial media look bad:

What Jon Stewart needs is Jon Stewart. He could use a droll comedian to temper his ferocity and correct him when he's wrong, as he was about the financial media, particularly CNBC and its excitable analyst Jim Cramer. They didn't cover up the story of financial shenanigans. They didn't even know it existed.

Cohen then offers several paragraphs worth of “proof” that the financial media didn't know about the financial shenanigans. The “proof”? The fact that executives at AIG, Lehman, Citi, and Bear Stearns lost money when their companies collapsed. Cohen concludes: “If these people kept their money in these companies -- financial and insurance giants they had built and knew from the inside -- how was even Jim Cramer to know these firms were essentially hollow?”

Nonsense. Ken Lay lost money when Enron collapsed. Does Richard Cohen think Ken Lay had no idea all was not well at Enron?

Think about what Cohen's argument suggests: That the people closest to a given situation know it best, and the media shouldn't question their judgment and behavior. If that's the case, why do we need the media at all?

Cohen does later make what he calls the “minor concession” that Stewart has “a small point” that CNBC and the business media in general have “often been a cheerleader for the zeitgeist -- up when the market's up, down when it's down.”

That seems neither “minor” nor “small” to me, but Cohen is convinced that it doesn't matter that the media is “a cheerleader for the zeitgeist.” After all, he tells us, bubbles existed before cable news:

It does not take cable TV to make a bubble. CNBC played no role in the Tulip Bubble that peaked, as I recall, in 1637, or in the Great Depression of 1929-41. It is the zeitgeist that does this -- the psychological version of inertia: the belief that what's happening will continue to happen.

But Cohen has inadvertently - and unknowingly - identified something the financial media could have done better: making clear that what's happening probably won't continue to happen forever. They might even have identified similarities between the current and previous bubbles, and detailed what happened when those bubbles burst.

It is astonishing to see someone who has spent his entire career working in the news media - and reached the lofty heights of the Washington Post op-ed pages - have so little belief in the importance and influence of his profession, and expect so little of it. Richard Cohen thinks it's fine for journalists to simply reflect the spirit of the time. He thinks it's fine for journalists to defer to the judgment of the powerful people they cover.

On some level, Cohen must understand the absurdity of what he has written. He concludes by conceding “Stewart plays a valuable role. He mocks authority, which is good, and he mocks those, such as the media, who take the word of authority as if, well, it's authoritative.” But Cohen just spent a column suggesting that the word of authority is authoritative - that was his explanation for why the business media couldn't have seen the collapse coming. And, sure enough, Cohen's concession to Stewart's usefulness isn't really his point in the end. No, his point is that the person who really needs skewering is ... Jon Stewart: “he ought to turn his wit inward: Mocker, mock thyself.”

You have to wonder why the Washington Post continues to publish someone who thinks so little of his profession. I'm sure the paper could find a liberal columnist who thinks journalism is about more than simply going along with popular sentiment and trusting the judgment of the rich and the powerful.