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Commentary: On the Media

At CNBC, madness that's beyond money

The cable network's got bigger problems than Jon Stewart.

March 13, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

I'm thinking of shooting my resume over to CNBC. There's got to be a spot for me on one of those chatter fests -- "The Kudlow Report" or Jim Cramer's "Mad Money" -- that blare stock market news around the clock.

It's not so much those college economics classes I aced (straight Bs) or my teenage facility with the books for our family's part-time beekeeping business. No, I realized I had the chops for business blather this week when I finally dared to peek at the balance in my 401(k).

Wow. I've out-performed the Dow by more than 100%! My secret: pulling money out of the stock market last year in favor of a money market, bonds and such. So my 401(k) has dropped 10% this year, whereas a pure stock market play would have knocked my account down 20% or more.

Genius. That financial disclosure makes me feel so good, I'm convinced it would be equally therapeutic (invigorating, even) for the big guns of business news -- CNBC's Larry Kudlow and Cramer, the bald-headed, arm-flailing afternoon stock tout -- to do the same.

I see CNBC running a bar graph with a composite of Kudlow and Cramer's portfolios (no dollar amounts necessary) right alongside a graph tracking a broad stock index. If the TV touts fall more than 10% behind? We vote them right off the CNBC island. Then there'd be more room for me and my timeless, slightly cowardly style of money management.

I see this as a relatively painless alternative for Cramer, who took a series of body blows this week from Jon Stewart's "Daily Show." I almost felt sorry for the gong-smashing Cramer, a onetime hedge fund manager.

A lot of us would look silly if forced to own up to our past pronouncements. Indeed, National Public Radio's David Folkenflik made a strong case this week that before the economic tsunami, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and three big business magazines joined CNBC in obsessing over outsize corporate personalities, while missing the signals of the coming deluge.

And though Cramer deserves to be saddled with a number of undeniably bad calls, he did save money for anyone who listened last fall when he said on the "Today" show that they should sell and get out of the market.

I've been more confused in recent days by Kudlow, a conservative standard-bearer and onetime Reagan administration economist, who left Wall Street in disgrace over drugs and drinking before rehabilitating himself on cable TV.

Kudlow hardly burnished his record when he declared the end of the subprime crisis about a year ago, when the Dow still stood at nearly double what it is today.

But it seemed ever sillier in recent weeks when he cited swooning stock markets as proof of the failures of President Obama and an administration he accuses of a "war against investment and businesses."

That put him in a league headed by Rush Limbaugh, who declared the "Obama recession . . . in full swing" just two days after the Democrat won the election -- and more than two months before he assumed office.

As I listened to Kudlow panelists this week almost uniformly trashing Obama's stimulus and tax-the-rich plans, I wondered a couple of things:

First, how could any conservative listen to these die-hard supply-siders and continue to grumble that all NBC units function as paid subsidiaries of the Democratic Party?

Second, and more important, don't the General Electric channels have some obligation to air the other side (real time, same station) rather than force us to flip to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann for a counterpoint we know will be off-point and gratingly smug?

I'm aware that Fox and MSNBC have metastasized the idea of carving out market share by owning an ideological niche. But I remain a starry-eyed optimist, pining for a better stab at balance all around.

Yes, a measure of sanity shone through during some CNBC programs, particularly Monday's live, hourlong interview with Warren Buffett. One of the world's richest men doesn't need to do much to enhance his credibility. But his acknowledgment that even he has struggled to figure out the markets was one of the more refreshing admissions in this whole mess.

Buffett also offered a bracing counterpoint to CNBC's Rick Santelli, who captured the popular fury among many Americans last month when he railed about an Obama program to "subsidize the losers' mortgages," meaning those who bought homes they couldn't afford.

Buffett made a compelling case that anger, alone, would not help us through this mess. He argued that Americans would rise or sink together, and that meant helping some who seemed less than deserving.

"The people who behaved well are no doubt going to find themselves taking care of the people who didn't behave well," said the Oracle of Omaha.

The righteous indignation will not fade away, nor will the appetite of many CNBC commentators to chain Obama to every stock downturn. But as stocks rallied this week, Kud- low and friends staggered a bit under competing imperatives.

They still growled about Obama's excess spending and his proposal to increase taxes on families that make more than $250,000 a year. But they also seemed nearly giddy as the Dow climbed for the third straight day Thursday. (CNBC hosts have admitted, after all, that a bull market means a happier audience, which means better ratings.)

So a "TIME TO RALLY!" headline flashed on screen. Cramer rooted on the rally: "This one's got legs!" And Kudlow enthused that we just might be poised on the verge of "a sea change into a bull market!"

I hope I can join the boys in one of Cramer's celebratory "Booyahs!" But, for now, the Seer of South Pasadena will keep at least a chunk of change in a money market.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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