The Real News in Fake News
What’s wrong with this picture?
CNBC financial analyst Jim Cramer being grilled for nearly 20 minutes — Mike Wallace–style — on a fake news show by a popular comedian commonly known — Walter Cronkite–style — as "the most trusted man in fake news."
Cramer’s widely anticipated March 12 faceoff with Jon Stewart on Stewart’s popular "Daily Show" was promoted like a boxing match. And if morning-after punditry and the number of hits on "The Daily Show" Web site were any indication, Stewart was the clear winner.
With this exchange, the fine line between news and entertainment became much thinner and a bit more blurry in this high-definition, digital-news world. Stewart’s stinging criticism of the "snake oil" peddled by Cramer and his financial network has transformed Stewart into a national ombudsman with a jabbing punch line that rarely misses its mark.
The last "newsman" to have that much clout was a real one — CBS News’s Cronkite. From 1963 until he retired in 1981, "Uncle Walter" was considered by his loyal viewers to be "the most trusted man in America." When he ended each broadcast with "And that’s the way it is" — his signature sign-off — Americans believed they had been given the true facts.
When Cronkite visited South Vietnam in February 1968 and, in a rare broadcast editorial after he returned, said that the United States could not win the war, even President Lyndon B. Johnson took notice.
"If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America," said Johnson, who later announced he would not seek re-election.
Stewart has been in this ring before. In October 2004 during a guest appearance on CNN’s "Crossfire," he called the political talk show’s format "partisan hackery." In the fallout that followed, the show was canceled a year later. CNN president Jonathan Klein agreed with Stewart’s criticism.
"I think he made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day," Klein said.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, 12 percent of viewers ages 18 to 29 said they regularly got their campaign news from comedy TV shows such as Stewart’s. The week of the Cramer exchange, Stewart’s "Daily Show" audience was 2.3 million.
With Stewart’s growing influence, the reality for journalists caught in his crossfire could well be, "If I’m mocked by Stewart, I’ve lost my credibility."
And that, as Cronkite would say, is the way it is.
An exhibit on the impact of entertainment news on mainstream news and reporting is currently displayed in the Newseum’s News Corporation News History Gallery.