Who do you believe - entertainment or news?
That's not a trick question.
Last Thursday, CNBC's lead financial reporter and host of Mad Money Jim Cramer paid a visit to Jon Stewart's Daily Show on Comedy Central. It was a showdown of sorts.
Stewart had been running video clips of CNBC gaffs like Rick Santelli's rant against an Obama policy announcement and Jim Cramer's videos showing him cheerleading different investments, including Bear Stearns. In the face-off, Stewart points out that Cramer, with all his inside information, either knew what was really going on with the banks and markets or should have known.
Cramer did admit that that he was wrong on many of his stock choices, but added, "We have 17-hours of live TV to do!"
"It's not about being wrong about certain things," Stewart says. "It's the gap as to what CNBC advertises itself as and what it is."
Stewart's point is that CNBC cannot advertise itself as financial experts for people who need help on the one hand while touting the beejeasus out of certain stocks on the other that quickly go south.
"We're both snake-oil salesmen," Stewart tells Cramer, "but we label the show snake-oil, here. Isn't there a problem selling snake-oil as vitamin tonic...? It's dangerous [and] it's ethically dubious..."
But the larger reality is that the line between entertainment and news has gotten so fuzzy that it's getting harder to tell a reporter from an entertainer. Even crazier is the fact that you have a comedian like Stewart educating "financial reporter" Cramer about the distinction between the two!
"We are sheep," a friend told me. "We want to be led rather than do the necessary homework, and we'll be led right off the cliff."
And she's right!
In the "old days," when a newscaster expressed an opinion, it carried an on-screen disclaimer. Now, we have commentary so thoroughly mixed with reporting by the likes of Jim Cramer, Rick Santelli and Larry Kudlow that, at times, sound less like three wise men and more like the Three Stooges... without a single disclamer.
Can you imagine ABC's Charlie Gibson throwing tiny, red flags at the camera a'la Cramer every time he makes a story point; or CBS news anchor Katie Couric waving her hands and shouting at viewers about a news story that she's particularly angry about?
If you want to be an entertainer, hire a PR team, get yourself booked on all the late-night shows and act crazy to your heart's content. But if you want to be a reporter, you'll need to live by a different and more exacting set of standards.
We don't need flash, flag-throwing or yelling at the camera. We just need honest, factual stories. And we need reporters who can give us those stories in a responsible and trustworthy manner.
Lichtman's commentaries can be found at www.ethicsstupid.com