Jon Stewart's Jim Cramer interview was a pivotal moment -- not just for Stewart, Cramer, and CNBC but also for journalism. It was a bracing reminder of what great research and a journalist more committed to getting to the truth than to landing the big get -- and keeping the big get happy, and ensuring future big gets -- can accomplish.
Stewart kept popping into my head as I watched John King interview Dick Cheney on Sunday. Each time King let Cheney get away with spouting gross inaccuracies and revisionist history, I kept thinking how different things would have been had Stewart been asking the questions. Stewart without the comedy and without the outrage -- just armed with the facts and the willingness to ask tough questions.
King opened the interview by showing clips of President Obama saying that his administration had "inherited an economic crisis" and "inherited a big mess." He then asked Cheney: "Did you leave him a mess?"
"I don't think you can blame the Bush administration for the creation of those circumstances," responded Cheney. "It's a global financial problem... So I think the notion that you can just sort of throw it off on the prior administration, that's interesting rhetoric but I don't think anybody really cares a lot about that."
"You are pretending that you are a dew-eyed innocent," Stewart might have said, as he did to Cramer. But even without Stewartesque flourishes, shouldn't King have challenged Cheney's ludicrous claim with some facts about how the fervor for financial deregulation championed by the Bush administration fueled the economic meltdown? Instead, King let Cheney off the hook: "We may get back to how we got here. But let's talk about where we are."
But what's the point of having one of the architects of how we got here on your show if you're not willing to ask them questions about it?
Is there any sentient human being -- other than Bush apologists -- disputing that the Bush administration left Obama a mess? And that for 8 years, the Bush administration promoted the financial deregulation that led to the meltdown? Indeed, as recently as last spring, Hank Paulson was calling for less supervision of Wall Street.
What if King had asked Cheney to respond to the way the SEC was dismantled under his watch, citing quotes about SEC chair Chris Cox from former SEC officials. Here are three King could have picked from: "[Cox] in many ways worked to dismantle the SEC"; "It was like someone poured molasses on the enforcement division"; "Cox worshiped at the same altar of deregulation as the rest of the Bush administration worshiped at."
After all, even Cox, testifying in front of the Senate Banking Committee in September, admitted that deregulation was the cause of the crisis.
But we got none of that from King. Instead, Cheney was allowed to deliver the fully discredited GOP talking points that try to pin the blame for the economic crisis on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "As best I can tell," Cheney told King, "from looking at the evidence, the failure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was one of the key ingredients that caused the subsequent financial problem and economic recession... and I think the collapse of those two institutions, as much as anything, contributed to the financial difficulties we've been living with since."
I could just hear Stewart saying: "But Fannie and Freddie were specifically prohibited from the kind of subprime lending that was at the heart of the meltdown. In fact, Fannie and Freddie could only buy mortgages issued to borrowers who made substantial down payments and carefully documented their incomes, which is the exact opposite of a subprime loan. So, could you tell us exactly what 'evidence' you have been 'looking at' that would lead you to say they 'caused' the financial crisis?"
Instead, King again let Cheney off the hook, saying he wanted "to move on to other issues." And even when King did bring out data to refute Cheney's spin, he repeatedly undercut the impact by distancing himself from the hard, cold facts that he was quoting. Check out this master's class in how an "objective" journalist can act as if there is no objective reality (mealy-mouthed qualifiers in bold):
KING: There are people I assume watching this interview right now, and people in this town who would say, why should we listen to you? And they would say that because of the context of the Bush administration numbers.
They would say, you know, what did you do when you were in charge? And they have some numbers to back up their case. And I want to show some to our viewers. When you came to office, the unemployment rate in the country was 4.2 percent, when you left it was 7.6 percent. The number of Americans in poverty when you arrived: just under 33 million, over 37 million when you left. The number without health insurance: a little over 41 million when you came, over 45 million approaching 46 million when you left. And you came with a budget surplus of $128 billion and in the final year, the budget deficit was a record $1.3 trillion.
So what would you say to someone out there watching this who is saying, why should they listen to you?
"There are people..." "They would say..." "And they have some numbers to back up their case."
These are not some numbers that belong to some people being trotted to make their case. These numbers are actual data -- empirical evidence. It would be as if King were interviewing a flat-earther and asked him: "There are people on this planet, watching this interview right now, who would say that the earth is round. And they have some pictures taken from outer space to back up their case. So what would you say to someone out there who is saying that?"
King's desperate attempt to distance himself from the question would be laughable if it weren't so repellent. It's not him asking Cheney why we should listen to him. It's not him putting forward objective data. It's some strawman viewers, so please don't hold it against him. And please, please come back. And tell your friends.
This is the problem with King and too many in the Pontius Pilate traditional media: They are so caught up in the obsolete notion that the truth always lies in the middle, they have to pretend that there are two sides to every issue -- and even two sides to straightforward data.
Someone needs to kidnap King and take him to a deprogramming center -- preferably one run by Jon Stewart and his team.
That way, the next time a denier of truth or an apologist for the broken status quo -- whether Republican or Democrat -- sits across from him, King can skip the qualifiers and do what journalists are supposed to do: hold public figures' feet to the fire. If it will help, he can even crib a line or two from Stewart's Cramer interview:
KING: Mr. Cheney, these Wall Street guys were on a Sherman's March through their companies financed by our 401ks and all the incentives of their companies were for short-term profit. And they burned the fucking house down with our money and walked away rich as hell and you guys knew that that was going on.
Okay, King could have dropped the "fucking" -- but how much would you have paid to watch Cheney's response to that one?
Until the Jon Stewart Journalism Deprogramming Center opens for business, all TV interviewers should ask themselves a simple question right before the camera goes on: What would Jon Stewart do?