Fix CNBC?

Every time I have started to write a follow-up to last week’s piece about the evolving Jon Stewart, Rick Santelli, Jim Cramer CNBC massacre, new information that altered the narrative slid in over the transom. The newest part of that story comes from a self described progressive (leftist) group called “Fix CNBC” which has seized on Stewart’s gold standard sophomoric schlock attacks to publicly call for CNBC to start being Wall Street’s watch dog instead of its public relations puppy. That ain’t likely to happen and some personal disclosure of my own a bit later will illustrate why.

Stewart Vs. Santelli And Cramer

A week ago, I took issue with the way Jon Stewart took a cheap shot on his “Daily Show” at CNBC’s Rick Santelli. Today, I have limited praise for Stewart’s skewering of CNBC’s “Mad Money” guru, Jim Cramer. If that seems inconsistent or hypocritical (oh gawd, not that), it isn’t. The difference is that when Stewart blasted Santelli, he blasted a straw man of his own making. Santelli did not say what Stewart led his audience to believe he said in order to set up his put-down of Santelli. I did not comment on Stewart’s general tear down of CNBC that followed his Santelli snark because I did not know whether Stewart had taken the video clips he made fun of out of context and still don’t. After that, Cramer went on the Daily Show for national humiliation by a Stewart who demanded to know why Cramer didn’t warn people to sell their stocks. “It’s not a fucking game,” Stewart postured. Cramer could have challenged that and Stewart’s other crock but didn’t.

Why didn’t Cramer point out the video clip that got played ad nauseum on practically every network of him screaming about impending doom in the financial markets on August 3, 2007 before the market bear took hold?

“He [Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke] has no idea, and these firms are going to go out of business and he’s nuts, they’re nuts! They know nothing!!!!” (about the Fed not injecting liquidity into the system).

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Why didn’t Cramer talk about his October 5th, 2008 advice on the “Today Show?”

“Whatever money you may need for the next five years, please take it out of the stock market right now, this week. I do not believe you should risk those assets in the stock market.” (stock market 30% off its highs?)

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Or this one from October 20, 2008?

“Stop trading these two stocks (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) … this is an outrage … It’s very clear that someone knows what’s happening (and isn’t telling the public).

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I dunno why Cramer didn’t come back at Stewart. On the other hand, opinions abound about the reason Stewart went after CNBC and Cramer in the first place.

“Jon went after Cramer because he hates phonies and hypocrisy,” according to fellow comedian Dennis Miller on Bill O’Reilly’s show.

“I heard people in Stewart’s family lost a lot of money in the market,” O’Reilly said to Miller. (Stewart’s older brother, Larry Leibowitz, is head of US Markets & Global Technology at a Wall Street firm)

“His [Cramer’s] real sin was attacking Obama’s economic policies. If he hadn’t done that, Stewart never would have gone after him. Stewart’s doing Obama’s bidding. It’s that simple,” MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson told Politico.com reporter Michael Calderone. “He’s a partisan demagogue.”

The London Telegraph’s Tom Leonard has a thoroughly cynical take: “… chat show cross-pollination. It’s a heinous practice which, in these desperate broadcasting times, viewers are going to see more of. The strategy is simple: keep non-essential guests – film stars, politicians, anyone with something interesting to say – to a minimum so you can concentrate on other people with shows. After dipping his proboscis into [Jon] Stewart’s pollen, Cramer was meant to flutter home with some of his young viewers, curious to see what the fuss was about. Indeed, Cramer had just inserted his schnozzle into The Martha Stewart Show (another NBC show). They pounded some pastry and pretended it was Jon Stewart. It’s all showbiz, after all.”

Not if some of CNBC’s critics have their way.

University of North Carolina business journalism professor Chris Roush proposes a Joe Friday change to just the facts: “The more that CNBC allows its reporters and anchors to state their opinions instead of simply reporting facts, the more it will hurt CNBC in the long run. When you state an opinion and you’re wrong, you cause people to lose millions or billions of dollars. Stating opinion with business news is extremely dangerous. Stating politics in political news is not as dangerous because people know that the person is stating their political viewpoint.” Roush’s point is understandable at a time when so many are looking for someone to blame for their losses instead of looking in the mirror. But the people I see on CNBC are educated, informed people with generally worthwhile points to make about the companies and markets they cover. What’s more, they challenge each other because the facts are often in dispute. Turning that off, as Roush recommends, would probably turn off CNBC’s lights.

Fix CNBC” wants the lights to stay on for change:

Americans need CNBC to do strong, watchdog journalism – asking tough questions to Wall Street, debunking lies, and reporting the truth. Instead, CNBC has done PR for Wall Street. You’ve been so obsessed with getting “access” to failed CEOs that you willfully passed on misinformation to the public for years, helping to get us into the economic crisis we face today. You screwed up badly. Don’t apologize – fix it!

CNBC should publicly declare that its new overriding mission will be responsible journalism that holds Wall Street accountable. As a down payment, we ask you to hire some new economic voices – people who have a track record of being right about the economic crisis and holding Wall Street executives’ feet to the fire.”

OK, La Mancha wannabes, mount up. But take it from one who been der, done dat and knows: Ya can fugget about it! Nobody can be right enough often enough to satisfy a herd of TV viewers chasing quick profits and nobody is gonna hold any Wall Street feet to the fire in any real way that matters. Too negative? Read on — and pay special attention to the interwoven tapestry of relationships.

Before joining Lou Dobbs’ “CNN Moneyline” (now “Lou Dobbs Tonight”) in New York, I auditioned for a spot at CNBC in 1989 on the anchor desk with Sue Herera, who is still there. My agent, the late great Sherlee Barish, said that all went well except that my reputation for exposing financial criminality bothered the brass and that they were concerned about having me in their midst. I may ask questions that would alienate the Wall Street biggies and business leaders they hoped to curry favor with. Worse, they were concerned I may find an R. Foster Winans at CNBC, Barish told me. Winans was The Wall Street Journal “Heard on the Street” columnist who leaked market moving stories to his stock trading buddies and inside information peddlers seemed to be everywhere.

In case you weren’t there or don’t remember the 80s paranoia, Wall Street had crashed, Godzilla market moving “geniuses” like Ivan Boesky with a “talent” for picking takeover targets that spiked in price had been unmasked as insider price riggers while lending institutions were failing because of looters like Charles “Cheating” Keating which, in turn, caused many businesses to close. Anyway, one particular story I had done, Barish said, in the midst of all that really bothered the CNBC boys: My expose on “MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour” that a great many of the businesses going under at the time were not the result of bad loans made to bad people who should not have gotten them (where have we heard that before?), but the result of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation forcing lenders to classify performing loans as delinquent and call them early. FSLIC Chairman M. Danny Wall demanded MacNeil/Lehrer take that fact out of the story I had done before it aired, but my editor, Gregg Ramshaw, said “no” as did his superiors, a principled stand for which I am still grateful. I was not grateful for the federal bullying that followed, but that’s a story for another time.

In any case, maybe the CNBC people had a point, because at CNN, I angered “The King of Wall Street” at the time, discovered that my boss, Lou Dobbs, had serious journalistic conflicts of interest and found corruption sludge at the now defunct Financial News Network.

That Wall Street king was Salomon Brothers CEO John Gutfreund of “Liar’s Poker” fame, and I earned his ire when I asked him about the way his bond traders, “The Big Swinging Dicks” as they called themselves, were sodomizing Salomon’s customers (and yes, there is something wrong with that). He was especially angry that I called him by the German pronunciation of his name (gootfroind) instead of the English translation (goodfriend) he liked. Gutfreund was no “good friend” to anyone, as far as I was concerned, other than his fellow financial sodomites. Long story short from there: Warren Buffett bought Salomon and fired Gutfreund, lots of lawsuits were filed, Gutfreund was banned from ever running a brokerage firm and CNBC still puts the sonuvabitch on the air as a credible “goodfriend” of investors! I’ve sent CNBC complained to CNBC, but whatcha gonna do? On to the Dobbs man.

Drexel Burnham Lambert of Michael Milken junk bond fame was in trouble when I joined CNN. How much trouble before it crashed several months later never completely got aired, from what I saw, because Lou Dobbs had a conflict. It was common knowledge that Lou wanted to be CNN’s president and that he was threatening to resign and take a big salary job at Drexel if he didn’t get it. Lou’s neighbor was Drexel’s top guy, Fred Joseph, the source of much reassurance that things at Drexel weren’t as bad as nearly everyone suspected or knew them to be. On the night that Drexel finally did crash, Lou told us all after the show that “Fred lied to me.” Maybe he did and maybe Lou was just doing his part all along to try and keep Drexel going for his own benefit as a viable bargaining tool, I certainly don’t know which. But how many people lost serious money because CNN’s reporting was possibly mollified by compromise? And this wasn’t the only example.

When I was assigned to do a story about some 1989 earnings at Shearson, I saw that a big insurance payment gave Shearson a bottom line profit even though it was losing money on its operations and said so in my story. The next day, there was hell to pay for saying that and Lou did a retraction. A week or so later, The Wall Street Journal noted the same thing I did and several other CNN news people took pleasure in pointing it out to me on the sly, always wary of Lou’s mercurial temper tantrums. But why would Lou do a retraction on something that was probably true, I wondered? Well, it did not take long to discover that Lou was being paid by Shearson and some other companies we were reporting on for work he did for them on the side. Lou fired me, but The Wall Street Journal somehow got hold of the story. Can’t imagine how that happened.



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Barish next sent me over to Financial News Network. It was the original network financial news source and the one the fledgling CNBC wanted to challenge. Right away, I began noticing some things that did not look right and soon had confirmations from some in a position to know that CFO Steven Bolen, among others, was lining his pockets with FNN money and sending it to secret offshore accounts. FNN is now history.

Rest assured that what I’ve just written is only the tip of the Wall Street journalistic ethics iceberg that “Fix CNBC” seems to believe it will be able to melt. To its credit, CNBC has made efforts to eliminate the appearance of impropriety by forbidding its reporters to own individual shares of stock and drawing boundaries on the proper association between reporter and reportee, I’ve been told. That’s a notable change since the network got a black eye from the friendship between its star, Maria Bartiromo (an off air producer at CNN when I was there whose CNBC star status is well deserved, by the way), and former Citigroup executive Todd Thomson. Thomson flew Bartiromo on Citgroup’s private jet from New York to Beijing to host a party costing five million Citigroup dollars in 2007. It’s also a change from the time I watched Bartiromo coo to JP Morgan Chase Chairman Bill Harrison (my upper class counselor at Virginia Episcopal School) that she owned 1,000 shares of a certain bank stock. “Maybe you should buy more,” he said. That may not sound like much, but Bartiromo is married to Jonathan Steinberg, son of mega investor Saul Steinberg. And a suggestion from Harrison to “buy more” could be taken as a tip and cause a large position to be taken. Now, what about those people who are consistently right and will hold Wall Street executives feet to the fire that “Fix CNBC” wants hired?

I’ve been closely involved in the markets since 1970, and in all that time I have yet to see anybody who could consistently tell a mass audience which specific stocks will make them money. Every generation has its guru that rides a trend or makes some dramatic right call (remember Joe Granville?), but they tend to fade away after the conditions that made them hot stuff change– which they do. There are simply too many market variables, too many ways of interpreting winners (today, next week, next year?) and stock calls made on TV are too public to keep working even if they are correct. The simple reason is that once too many people start buying the same stock, it tends to stop rising because there are too few people left to buy and too many already in who want to sell and protect profits. The bottom line: Jim Cramer probably does as good a stock picking and market education job as it is possible to do on TV. As for holding Wall Street feet to the fire, antagonize the suits too much, and they’ll stop talking to reporters and start talking to their lawyers about defamation of character, harassment, loss of reputation, tortuous interference, you get the picture.

CNBC doesn’t want that headache and neither do any other news organizations I can imagine, especially during these tough financial times. So take it from one who has been tossed off company premises many times and dealt with death threats from criminals of all sorts, CNBC is not going to start burning Wall Streeters unless it has people like my former news director, Jim Topping (now the retired president of KGO-TV, San Francisco), who knew exposing financial crime was the right thing to do, knew I had the goods on the crooks and was willing to stare the bastards down. I don’t believe CNBC has people with that sort of gut in management who are willing to give up their Four Seasons table or toni party invites in order to rake Wall Street. Neither do I believe there are many reporters around these days with the background or desire to spot legitimate fraudulent activity and expose it before law enforcement does. The ability to do that is not learned in business school, a background shared by most of the bright, articulate faces on CNBC. And that’s why “Fix CNBC” is probably going to have to be happy with the police holding Wall Street feet to the fire while CNBC shows the perp walk.


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