Throughout Jon Stewart's career there were many, many instances when the comedian played the part of the nation's moral and psychological compass.Specializing in taking on right wing lunacy and corporate media banality, Stewart was never afraid to take on the biggest names in the industry. He went onto Bill O'Reilly's show several times and openly ridiculed him at the peak of Fox News's power. He brilliantly pilloried Glenn Beck in a scarily accurate rendition of the conspiratorial 'Glenn Beck Show'. He marvelously took apart Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN's 'Cross Fire', a ludicrous show that pitted the beltway politicians against each other in infantile shouting matches."I still remember sitting on the set of "Crossfire" that day in 2004 as the floor manager counted down to blastoff," wrote Begala of the historic encounter. "I was thinking: "Jon Stewart, wow. I hope Diane is watching." My wife, truth be told, rarely watched "Crossfire," but she rarely missed "The Daily Show." By the time Stewart finished disemboweling my show, I was hoping she wasn't watching."
There was one episode of his show however, that should define Stewart's legacy and all that he stood for, and that was his brutal takedown of former hedge fund manager and 'Mad Money' CNBC host Jim Cramer. In March of 2009, Stewart laid into an unsuspecting Cramer for essentially being the poster child for Wall St and the extraordinarily risky, greedy practices that sent the economy into the abyss in 2008.
After listening to Cramer desperately claim he had been trying to warn people about short selling, Stewart played him a clip of himself advocating the widely criticized practice.
"I want the Jim Cramer on CNBC to protect me from that Jim Cramer," said Stewart to Cramer, who was beginning to turn a ghostly white.
"CNBC could be an incredibly powerful tool of illumination for people that believe that there are two markets," went on Stewart. "One that has been sold to us as long term. Put your money in 401ks. Put your money in pensions and just leave it there. Don’t worry about it. It’s all doing fine. Then, there’s this other market; this real market that is occurring in the back room. Where giant piles of money are going in and out and people are trading them and it’s transactional and it’s fast. But it’s dangerous, it’s ethically dubious and it hurts that long term market. So what it feels like to us—and I’m talking purely as a layman—it feels like we are capitalizing your adventure by our pension and our hard earned money. And that it is a game that you know. That you know is going on. But that you go on television as a financial network and pretend isn’t happening."
A shell shocked Cramer attempted to justify his behavior. "My first reaction is absolutely we could do better," he said shakily. "Absolutely. There’s shenanigans and we should call them out. Everyone should. I should do a better job at it. But my second thing is, I talk about the shorts every single night. I got people in Congress who I’ve been working with trying to get the uptick rule. It’s a technical thing but it would cut down a lot of the games that you are talking about. I’m trying. I’m trying. Am I succeeding? I’m trying."
Stewart was having none of it.
"But the gentleman on that video is a sober rational individual," he said. "And the gentleman on Mad Money is throwing plastic cows through his legs and shouting “Sell! Sell! Sell!” and then coming on two days later and going, “I was wrong. You should have bought like–I can’t reconcile the brilliance and knowledge that you have of the intricacies of the market with the crazy bull— you do every night. That’s English. That’s treating people like adults."
After another revealing video of Cramer telling an interviewer how he would practice 'fomenting' - an illegal tactic used to give a false impression of a company in order to drive its stock one way or another - Stewart began to get visibly angry.
"I gotta tell you. I understand that you want to make finance entertaining, but it’s not a f—ing game," said Stewart. "When I watch that I get, I can’t tell you how angry it makes me because it says to me, “You all know.” You all know what’s going on. You can draw a straight line from those shenanigans to the stuff that was being pulled at Bear and at AIG and all this derivative market stuff that is this weird Wall Street side bet."
And on it went, with each moment getting worse and worse for the hapless Cramer who could not stave off Stewart's relentless, incisive criticisms.
This was Stewart at his absolute finest, weaving satire and effective journalism into a deadly weapon and exposing one of the greatest threats to democracy and the economy - the financial sector. Cramer was the scapegoat for this channeled rage, but a deserving one, and Stewart made him pay for the sins of his industry in front of the entire nation.
Of course it didn't solve any real world problems, but it made everyone feel a hell of a lot better.
(To watch the whole interview with Jim Cramer, go here)