Jon Stewart – a one-man fifth estate

WE live in strange and hallucinogenic times. Last week, one of the sleazy cowboys of the American money markets was finally brought to book for his part in spreading the corporate equivalent of the clap through the international economy.

The face of debauched US capitalism was not some Machiavellian Ponzi schemer but Jim Cramer, a squealing celebrity investment adviser whose cable-television show uses ka-ching sound effects.

His relentless prosecutor was not a finance journo or government regulator but a greying comedian who claims he’s most comfortable throwing spitballs and making fart noises.

Yet despite the unlikely nature of the protagonists, last week’s epic media war between Cramer and The Daily Show host Jon Stewart provided more insight into the roots of the global economic meltdown than the sum of regular journalism on the subject.

What’s more, Stewart’s savage j’accuse has made him the champion of all bewildered workers who are watching their nest eggs, jobs and homes go up in pongy, panicky puffs and are wondering what the hell went wrong.

The Daily Show’s take on the financial crisis has been gold from the get-go. In January, Stewart — who is proving to be the smartest, funniest and most principled human being on telly today — marvelled at the waysupposedly respectable US financial institutions had been permitted to sell nothing more than the aroma of mortgages. Mortgage molecules, in fact.

“What do you need to do to go to jail for a financial crime?” he railed. “Do you need to do a financial crime and then punch a baby in the face?”

Now the award-winning comedian’s attacks on the influential CNBC business channel have gone viral on the internet and generated approving comments from as far up as the White House.

On March 4, Stewart crucified CNBC for bullishly talking up companies such as Bear Stearns days before they crashed and burned.

“If I had only taken CNBC’s advice, I would have a million dollars today,” Stewart said. “Provided I started with $100 million.”

Heated media back-and-forths followed, culminating in a Daily Show appearance by CNBC host Cramer last Thursday. In a riveting onslaught, Stewart accused CNBC in particular and the business media in general of sins of omission and commission when it came to honestly reporting on modern capitalism’s two markets.

“One [market] has been sold to us as long term,” he said to Cramer. “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 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 capitalising your adventure by our pension and our hard-earned money.”

When a squirming Cramer tried to say it wasn’t him but some of the bigger boys, Stewart produced devastating internet interview footage of the former hedge-funder smirking as he encouraged short selling and manipulating the market with false rumours.

“I understand that you want to make finance entertaining,” the funny man saidwith icy seriousness. “But it’s not a f—ing game.”

And so say all of us who’ve lacked the pass code required for entry into this secret, second market, this gleaming executive bathroom where industrial strength deodorisers work overtime to disguise the smell.

In many ways Stewart’s fearlessness, pig-dogged determination and unwavering ethical drive is putting regular reporters to shame. What does it say about the health of the fourth estate when the hacks entertain and the harlequins newshound?

Yet it’s precisely Stewart’s outsider status as a lowly clown, as the follow-up act to a show starring crank-calling puppets, that leaves him free to call a spade a f—ing spade as he furiously patrols the grounds of what’s starting to look very much like a one-man fifth estate.

* To watch Stewart’s segments, go to thedailyshow.com. See YouTube for Stewart decimating the “partisan hackery” of the US media.

- originally published in The Australian on 08-05-2008.

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