Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart's Daily Show showdown.

Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart's Daily Show showdown.

Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart's Daily Show showdown.

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March 13 2009 12:23 PM

Cramer vs. Stewart

The Daily Show showdown was mesmerizing but not quite satisfying.

Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show

Cramer went on Stewart's show yesterday. I refer, of course, to Jim Cramer, who opens his trap five nights a week on CNBC to screech stock tips, and to Martha Stewart, whose K-Mart dishtowels are terrifically absorbent. You see, Cramer embarked this week on the oddest media tour since—well, since late January, when Rod Blagojevich left hair-spray stains in every green room in Midtown. Like Blago, Cramer sought to repel bad buzz with a charm offensive. Unlike Blago, Cramer possesses at least trace amounts of charm, but given the present national mood, these amount only to a modest asset.

Cramer stands accused of being a performance artist who, in playing a financial expert on TV, has amounted to a con artist. That the man is a clown has long been obvious to every thinking person with a cable box, but The Daily Show (Comedy Central) has been riding him and his colleagues hard over the last week and a half, with Jon Stewart channeling recessionary rage by performing media criticism in language that has ranged from the professorially sardonic to the truck-driverishly profane. To explain the whole beef to a man from Mars, you'd need to unpack both Habermas' theory of advanced capitalism and Behan's First Law of PR, but here it might suffice to say that Jon Stewart's been prosecuting a case against Cramer and his masters as accessories to the theft of the life savings of every little old lady in the country.

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Cramer, his mood swinging almost as wildly as his antic arms, has generally battled back, mooing on Today that he should be exempt from the taunts of a comedian, failing to achieve catharsis with Martha in abusing pie dough with a rolling pin. He also accepted an invitation to Thursday's Daily Show. The idea was to stage a debate of sorts, and warming up for the appearance that day on his own show, Mad Money, Cramer turned to a March Madness simile and likened himself to a 16th seed matched against a Big East powerhouse. It seemed clear that Stewart would "win" this tussle, whatever that might mean, so the only real question was whether we might see Cramer enjoy a good cry or a nice attack of conscience.

Alas, we got neither. Instead, Cramer, speaking truthiness to power, performed an arcane combination of self-promotion, self-defense, and self-flagellation. On the set, a glowing quintet of NBC peacocks lurked behind Cramer's hunched form. Out of his mouth came regular pleas that he has worked hard to drive corporate snakes off our financial island. From his soul came some semisincere groveling of the type you use when making excuses in the office of your assistant principal or general practitioner. He refused to get the fundamental point, and you can't blame him for that: To do so would have invited an existential crisis. Stewart, expressing chagrin that Cramer had become the single face of a multiheaded monster, made a persuasive argument that the financial-news networks behaved (especially during the yearslong run-up to the mortgage crisis) less like watchdogs than jackals. The notion was that the networks, being aware of a gap between image and reality that they had steadfastly refused to address in their coverage, had abdicated their journalistic responsibilities faster than you can say "Judith Miller." Can you file for Chapter 7 spiritual bankruptcy?

Stewart's self-awareness allowed him to pull this off without descending into self-piety. The mock-stentorian intro made much of this "weeklong feud of the century" as a blockbuster pseudo-event: "People on TV have talked about how much people have talked about it." As students of Stewart's famed Crossfire fusillade of 2004 will remember, there's a special corner of the comedian's spleen devoted to the Jim Cramers and Tucker Carlsons of the infotainment world, frat-house bullies exploiting emotion for ratings. One hand raises a heavy-metal salute and encourages Stewart to rock on. The other is filled with small questions: How much of his indignation is moral and how much is simply aesthetic? Why is this satirist aroused to his most serious anger by loudmouthed hacks? And does a small-D democrat in the mass media guard against demagoguery?

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.