Just over a year ago, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart famously tore into Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's financial hype-fest Mad Money, for what the former saw as editorial malpractice. Stewart had declared moral war over the entire CNBC machine and popular financial reporting for not being more investigative and skeptical of the information they were reporting from the denizens of Wall Street.
But Cramer was on the receiving end of a particularly indignant Stewart, who showed video footage of Cramer discussing market-moving techniques he undertook when he ran a hedge fund. "You know, a lot of times when I was short at my hedge fund," Cramer said on video, "I was positioned short, meaning I was needing it down. I would create a level of activity beforehand that could drive the futures. It doesn't take much money."
Cramer's failing, in Stewart's eyes, was not simply that he was naively reporting on a gamed system, but that he was part of it. "So what it feels like to us - and I'm talking purely as a layman - it feels like we are capitalizing your adventure by our pension and our hard-earned money. And that it is a game that you know is going on. But you go on television at a financial network and pretend it isn't happening."
Some 14 months later, the New York State Attorney General's office is investigating eight banks to find out if they gave misleading information to ratings agencies. Goldman Sachs is under federal investigation for allegedly capitalizing on the precarious mortgage market at the expense of its clients. And the public is convinced the world is run by a few fat cats in a back room, who will use any means at their disposal to attain wealth, even their customers' confidence.
Behind the headlines sits a complex array of explanations, excuses, and jargon that offer banks a pathway out of the mess, while simultaneously increasing the distance between them and the rest of the world. To most consumers, for whom the financial world's ways rarely impact them beyond their 401Ks or checking accounts, these entities could long be seen as the digital age's robber barons.
Financial media and financial institutions alike depend on the duality of being insiders with unique market insights and occupying a position of trust that depends utterly on transparency and credibility. A certain community will perhaps always exist outside of its priorities. But when it is perceived to violate that balance with clients - or viewers - the path to redemption is a treacherous one.
Julia Hood is the publishing director of PRWeek. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.