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Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Man & The Myth of Jon Stewart

The Man & The Myth of Jon Stewart: The Power of Mediatized Rituals, Public Figures, and Discourse in Postmodernity

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The confrontation between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer began on March 4th, 2009, when The Daily Show aired a segment highlighting some of the most optimistic predictions and soft interviews conducted by CNBC commentators and hosts before and during the market collapse of 2008. It’s important to note that although footage of Cramer was included, the segment was initially aimed at CNBC and Rick Santelli, an analyst who had canceled his interview with the show.

However, although CNBC declined to comment on the negative critique, Cramer responded by writing a column that argued he had been quoted out of context, and defending his reputation as an analyst (Gold 2009/3/11). Perhaps sensing a target too easy to miss, The Daily Show aired a segment on March 9th, 2009 that apologized for their possible misrepresentation, and instead showed a series of different clips that unquestionably showed Cramer urging investors to buy stocks that failed within weeks.
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In Cramer We Trust
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The next day, Cramer was already on the defense, making appearances on CNBC affiliated stations MSNBC and NBC where he mocked Stewart’s role as a comedian to largely sympathetic hosts (Gold 2009/3/11). By that same evening, The Daily Show had already formulated its response. In a nearly nine-minute segment titled Basic Cable Personality Clash Skirmish '09, which included clips from Cramer’s interviews that morning, Stewart made light of the confrontation, made fun of Cramer, criticized the display of network cronyism, and also made a very salient point that Cramer’s analysis of a dubiously volatile market was marketed as endurably trustworthy with the catchphrase “In Cramer We Trust”.

Additionally, Stewart defended The Daily Show from suggestions that they should try and do a better job predicting the markets than CNBC, by stating that they had never claimed to be in the business of financial analysis, and that was not their job. To reiterate their position as an entertainment program rather than a news program, and the unfairness of leveraging CNBC affiliated stations for public relations purposes, clips of Stewart “appearing” on Comedy Central affiliated entertainment stations like MTV and Nickelodeon were fabricated.
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On March 11th, 2009, Jon Stewart joking offered to entertain secondary media’s portrayal of the back and forth commentary as a “war of words”, by interviewing Cramer on The Daily Show the next day. As he led into The Colbert Report which followed his program, Stewart and Steven Colbert jokingly took bets on who would win what Stewart called “a largely fabricated war.”
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Jim Cramer Pt. 1
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So on March 12th, 2009, Jon Stewart interviewed Jim Cramer, though the conversation was quite different than Stewart’s more standardly laughable interviews with authors and movie stars. Despite his largely comedic portrayal of the confrontation leading up to the interview, Stewart wasted no time before fearlessly digging into the heart of the issue: the responsibility of business journalists for their financial analysis. Though he tried his best to remain civil and composed, Cramer appeared taken aback, and was frequently at a loss for words. As the Los Angeles Times reported afterwards,
“The verdict from critics Friday was quick and unsparing: Comedian Jon Stewart trounced CNBC pundit Jim Cramer in their televised encounter Thursday night. Forgoing his typical caustic humor, a serious and at times angry Stewart eviscerated Cramer for jocularly discussing how to manipulate the stock market and slammed CNBC as an ineffective watchdog of Wall Street.” (Gold 2009/3/14)
The article went on to describe Stewart’s tough interviewing skills and keen ability to articulate a public mood, as well as the record-breaking viewership the episode attracted (Gold 2009/3/14). It seemed the war was over, and Stewart had won.

What happened? How did a comedian best an analytical journalist in a debate on such important, serious topics as ethical reporting and the financial industry? To better comprehend Cramer’s loss, we must understand the formation of business journalism as it currently exists. In their article, Performing Finance: The Industry, the Media, and Its Image, Clark, Thrift and Tickell examine the stream of real-time data, images, events, and stories that have come to exert considerable power on the finance industry.

In the 1990s deregulation and the growing popularity of personal investment created a range of new financial products for consumption by a basically financially literate, heterogeneous audience (Clark 2004). This new found ability of direct participation in the financial market by a broader audience created a need for real-time financial information that was met by developments in new media (Clark 2004). As a result of these changes, financial journalists became market players and financial news became an entertainment commodity (Clark 2004). Cramer exemplifies this shift in his role as both a market advisor and personality that generated ratings for CNBC. Although CNBC and Cramer were marketed and perceived as objective sources of important, timely financial news, in reality they were under the influence of a variety of forces that compromised their journalistic integrity.

In an effort to compete for audience attention in a media saturated environment, CNBC and other financial news channels increasingly resorted to sensationalist tactics that performed financial journalism as an overwhelming, chaotic, urgent stream of breaking stories (Clark 2004). As Cramer admitted in the interview, he was under considerable pressure to entertain and increase ratings for CNBC, a network that was responsible for broadcasting nearly round the clock financial information.

Unfortunately, such tactics have a side effect of artificially inflating markets, which is one of the criticisms Stewart voiced when he suggested that perhaps they didn’t actually need nonstop coverage.
Additionally, as financial media and their audiences gained power as market players, companies in the financial industry increasingly sought to influence their behavior and perceptions (Clark 2004). This situation was worsened by deregulation that blurred the lines between producers, marketers, advisors and analysts, creating massive conflicts of interest that critically weakened independent reporting and resulted in overly optimistic, positive analysis (Clark 2004). Stewart perhaps best illustrated the depth of this problem when he aired clips of financial journalists asking key financial players such trivial questions as, “What’s it like to be a billionaire?” However, he also questioned Cramer on his lack of skepticism while interviewing executives, when Cramer had first-hand knowledge of how pervasive dubious financial practices were in the industry. Cramer’s response was that he had known these executives for many years and trusted them as friends, which only served to support Stewart’s call for greater journalistic integrity.

In the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, general public opinion began to include a lack of faith in once respected institutions as well as a desire for more effective regulation (Gold 2009/3/14). Since financial news media had come to influence nearly every aspect of the financial industry from management practices to calculability to product value to audience access to rhetoric, new regulation was needed that accounted for this new and pervasive power dynamic (Clark 2004). As the confrontation between Stewart and Cramer unfolded, Stewart articulated the new populist ideas while Cramer represented the failures of the existing system. Therefore, it didn’t matter that Stewart was a comedian and Cramer was a journalist. Stewart was still more likely to win the debate.

Through an understanding of the repeated spectacle of financial journalism as well as the Stewart and Cramer confrontation, we can understand this event as a mediatized ritual. In his paper Mediatized Rituals: Beyond Manufacturing Consent, Simon Cottle builds upon Durkheim’s theory of ritual as society in action to define mediatized rituals as follows:
“Mediatized rituals are those exceptional and performative media phenomena that serve to sustain and/or mobilize collective sentiments and solidarities on the basis of symbolization and a subjunctive orientation to what should or ought be.” (p415)
Stewart and Cramer both performed a dialogue on The Daily Show via the medium of television in which each represented a different collective sentiment. The extensive attention the dialogue received from secondary media establishes the criteria of exceptional phenomena (Cottle 2006). Hence, the Stewart versus Cramer “war of words” constitutes a mediatized ritual.

According to Cottle’s categorization of such rituals, the debate between Stewart and Cramer can be defined as a “conflicted media event” (2006). Therefore, the confrontation was far more than merely two men articulating opposing viewpoints. Rather, Stewart and Cramer were symbolically enacting ideas about social good for the purpose of solidifying their audiences around particular sentiments about journalistic responsibility.

There are four ways to interpret the ritualized media event that was Jon Stewart’s confrontation with Jim Cramer. First, Stewart and Cramer were both real men with a real personal fight. Certainly, sensationalist media coverage building up to the event that referred to it as a “feud” or “showdown” conjured up images of a boxing match between two prizefighters, as if they were athletes displaying physical prowess in a competition that would yield a definitive winner and loser (Gold 2009/3/11). Such interpretation assumes that the characteristics and values each man exhibited were intrinsic to their personal identity as individual human beings.

Second, Cramer was a real man and Stewart was comedic character. This was the position taken by those defending Cramer, specifically media outlets affiliated with his network, CNBC. Such conceptualization places Cramer in a framework of authenticity by defining him as an analyst and journalist (Stein 2009). Conversely, by defining Stewart as a comedian and entertainer, his commentary was framed as trivial to any legitimate debate on the matter.

Thirdly, despite all his irony, cursing, and amusing facial expressions Stewart was a journalist, and Cramer was an infotainment host on a quest for ratings. This conceptualization was popular in the subsequent analysis of the confrontation, which frequently portrayed Stewart as the winner and compared him to famed journalist, Edward R. Murrow (Alterman 2009). In the interview, Cramer referred to programing demands that required his show to be entertaining in an attempt to deflect responsibility for the consequences of his financial advice. Unfortunately, under the harsh light of Stewart’s challenging questions, this strategy resulted in the perception that Cramer was the less serious of the two.

Fourth, finally and most importantly, both Cramer and Stewart were media personalities, and not real men. To borrow Stewart’s language, these men were actually basic cable personalities, essentially television characters. Moreover, as Cramer pointed out in the interview, as a host he had to act in a manner that is entertaining in order to attract viewers. From this position it can be inferred that these men behaved differently on television than they did in their untelevised private lives. Consequently, our public understanding of them was confined to their televised portrayal of their entertaining host characters. This is the reality of our postmodern world. Our perception of things is so frequently mediated that we cannot understand the direct reality of a man on television. Instead, we can only understand the fabricated personality he portrays.

In his book Media Matters: Race and Gender in U.S. Politics, John Fiske proposes a theoretical system for understanding media events that best explains this fourth conceptualization of the confrontation between Stewart and Cramer. Building upon the postmodern theories of Baudrillard, Foucault, and Raymond Williams, Fiske proposes that media events and the public figures via the force of repetition transcend the boundaries of specific times and individual people to become part of the ever present, and turbulent sociocultural milieu (1996). Within this theoretical construct media events and public figures become the raw material for articulating a multitude of discourses that compete for space and attention and power (1996). Therefore, because Stewart and Cramer chose the medium of their respective television shows to articulate competing narratives, and because that video footage was than repeatedly played and discussed on the internet as well as other television shows, Stewart and Cramer ceased to be individual people.

As the mediated representations of Stewart and Cramer were copied and repeated they were transformed into what Baudrillard defined as simulacra, and became public figures in the hyperreality that constitutes all postmodern reality. As a simulacrum, the characters of Stewart and Cramer could be decontextualized from their actual persons and repurposed for use in the value systems of different publics to articulate various narratives, a process that Foucault referred to as discourse. Stewart came to embody the populist sentiment and more liberal ideologies, while Cramer represented the financial system and more conservative principles. As these men engaged in a televised interview, their public figures enacted a variety of discourses that had already been competing in the sociocultural milieu, and would continue long after the men stopped talking. Of course, I differentiate between the men and their public figures only to illustrate the system. Actually, in postmodern hyperreality there is no social understanding of either man outside their public figure, and there is no mediated discussion outside of discourse.

In addition to combining postmodern models, Fiske includes and emphasizes the element of struggle (1996). Elaborating upon Raymond Williams’s theory of emergent, dominant, and residual discursive currents, Fiske proposes that subcultural or marginalized publics can struggle to maneuver their discourse to an emergent position. Therefore, emergent discourse can push the dominant discourse to a residual position, and consequently change the values, beliefs, and norms of the sociocultural milieu (Fiske 1996). Within the Stewart versus Cramer media event, Stewart represents an emergent discourse powerful enough to challenge the dominant discourse embodied by Cramer.

As the audience, journalists, commentators, and just about anyone who was aware of the confrontation watched, talked about, and replayed the footage, they were in fact participating in discourse. If they supported Stewart, they were creating and driving the emerging discourse of distrust in financial institutions and traditional news media. If they supported Cramer, they were maintaining and reinforcing the dominant discourse of faith in these traditional social structures. Since Stewart was widely perceived as wining the debate, the emerging discourse he represented correspondingly gained power and legitimacy. Accordingly, since Cramer comparatively failed, the dominate discourse he represented lost power and public support. According to Fiske’s theory, the growth and support of Stewart’s supports can be understood as the struggle of an emerging discourse to influence the sociocultural milieu.

Although an increased support or momentum for any discourse is noteworthy, Fiske establishes that it is especially significant for emerging discourses, because of the power dynamics within the sociocultural milieu; that is the uneven nature of the discursive landscape (1996). An unequal distribution of power requires emergent discourses to exert a tremendous amount of effort, struggle, in order to gain prominence, where as dominant discourses require only a minimum effort to maintain their position (Fiske 1996). Thus, the gain in power Stewart as a public figure gained for the discourse he represented was a rare and monumental achievement.

Fiske catalogs discursive struggles into five primary categories: “the struggle to accent a word or sign”, “the struggle over choice of word”, “the struggle to recover the repressed”, “the struggle to disarticulate and rearticulate”, and “the struggle to gain access” (Fiske p.5-6). Although, the Stewart versus Cramer media event could be understood through the analytical lens of several of these categories, perhaps the most applicable given the long-term effects of the discourse is the model of the struggle to disarticulate and rearticulate.

There was certainly struggle over word choice in the actual interview, but the purpose of Stewart’s discourse was to disarticulate sensationalist financial analysis television shows as journalism or fact, and rearticulate such programing as infotainment or educated speculation at best. The immediate success of this discursive struggle could be seen in the press coverage following the event. Two days after the Los Angeles Times published an article comparing Jon Stewart to Edward R. Murrow, and suggesting that CNBC would need to aggressively return to their “journalistic roots” (Gold 2009/3/14). The long term success of this discursive struggle can be seen in the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, which has articulated a distrust of many traditional institutions, news media included. Thus, the discourse continues to emerge years after this specific media event.

The faceoff with Cramer was not Jon Stewart’s last mediatized ritual. Stewart has repeatedly utilized the power of his public image to perform media events that build solidarity behind emergent discourses. In October 2010, Stewart organized and held the Rally to Restore Sanity at the capital in response to conservative pundit Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor Rally (Poniwozik 2010). Time Magazine called it the “Million Moderate March, a protest for non-protesters,” but asserted that the real joke was on the media that promoted the radical ideas of the vocal few over the moderate values of the silent majority (Poniwozik 2010). After the Rally to Restore Sanity attracted over 200,000 people, The New York Times dubbed Stewart a political leader (Carr 2010). However, the same article went on to critique the rally as nothing more than a misdirected attack on the media (Carr 2010). Of course the New York Times did not like the discourse Stewart enacted. It criticized the media, and the NYT is one of our country’s foremost media outlets. Once again, comedic relief provided by the public figure of Stewart was giving the populist sentiment power when dominant media had attempted to marginalize their discourse.

By all accounts Jon Stewart is actively aware and thoroughly conscientious of his role as a public figure and the mediatized rituals he performs. When a bill was passed to provide healthcare to 9/11 responders, coverage of issue aired on The Daily Show was directly credited for its passage (Carter 2010). Because Stewart lived within sight of the World Trade Center, the cause was portrayed by the media as deeply personal, and once again he was compared to Edward R. Murrow for his advocacy journalism work (Carter 2010). If Stewart is intentionally navigating the hyperreality of postmodernity in order to voice his personal political convictions beyond the celebrity of public figure, than perhaps he is actions can be understood via Erika Spohrer’s concept of becoming extra-textual (2007). That is, ultimately Stewart is striving to transform himself from “the comedian” to “the man”. Such a distinction would create a space for Stewart to more directly participate in political discourse, though for now he asserts that he’s just a joker.

Works Consulted
Alterman, E.. (2009, April). Is Jon Stewart Our Ed Murrow? Maybe... The Nation, 288(14), 9. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from Research Library Core. (Document ID: 1683455261).

Carr, David. (2010, November 1). Rally To Shift The Blame :[Business/Financial Desk]. New York Times (Late Edition (east Coast)), p. B.1. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from New York Times. (Document ID: 2176848551).

CARTER, BILL & BRIAN STELTER. (2010, December 27). In 'Daily Show' Role on 9/11 Bill, Echoes of Murrow :[News Analysis]. New York Times (Late Edition (east Coast)), p. B.1. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from New York Times. (Document ID: 2222250291).

Clark, G., Thrift, N., & Tickell, A. (2004). Performing finance: The industry, the media and its image. Review of International Political Economy, 11(2), 289-310. doi:10.1080/09692290420001672813

Fiske, J., & ebrary, I. (1996). Media matters: Race and gender in U.S. politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cottle, S. (2006). Mediatized rituals: Beyond manufacturing consent. Media, Culture & Society, 28(3), 411-432. doi:10.1177/0163443706062910

Gold, Matea. (2009, March 11). Fighting mad; Jon Stewart continues his 'Daily' pounding of CNBC and its pundits. He and Jim Cramer exchange verbal jabs -- leading up to Thursday's in-your-face. Los Angeles Times,p. D.1. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from Los Angeles Times. (Document ID: 1658412981).

Gold, Matea. (2009, March 14). COMPANY TOWN; Funny? Maybe until he's interviewing you; In his smackdown of CNBC's Jim Cramer, 'Daily Show' host Jon Stewart again displays his journalistic chops. Los Angeles Times,p. A.1. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from Los Angeles Times. (Document ID: 1660734431).

Poniewozik, J.. (2010, October). The 15% Solution: Are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Joking? Time, 176(14), 1. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 2162261531).

Spohrer, E. (2007). Becoming extra-textual: Celebrity discourse and paul robeson's political transformation. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 24(2), 151-168. doi:10.1080/07393180701262750

Stein, Ben. (2009, March 29). Tell Us the Future. Then Again, Don't :[News Analysis]. New York Times (Late Edition (east Coast)), p. BU.2. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from New York Times. (Document ID: 1669047771).


  1. This is very well written, definitely an interesting read. You clearly elucidate the theoretical implications of the works you cite, though I'm not sure I agree with all of them or with the conclusions they lead you to. There are definitely alternative readings of events that come to mind: for instance, why not contest Cottle's use of Durkheimian analysis here in favor of one that combines Weber and Goffman? Stewart and Cramer are certainly caught up in dramaturgy and spectacle, but perhaps it is less representative of rituals of solidarity and more indicative of professional boundary work and/or direct competition over resources--in this case, legitimacy.

    . . . .

    Employing postmodernist arguments has some very specific consequences and I think one of these is definitely dangerous: the mode of critique itself, limited as it is to images, texts, surfaces, takes the objects of its inquiry too seriously and at the expense of critical analysis. Harvey harps on this big-time in "The Condition of Postmodernity" when discussing the reaction of postmodernist architects to modernist city planning schemes.

    What do I mean? At the very end of your article (which again I am a big fan of) you discuss Spohrer and extra-textuality, taking the text of Stewart as "prizefighter" quite seriously. I think this shows a certain credulity on your part. You earlier discuss emergent/dominant/residual discourses, which in my opinion is super important for understanding not only institutional media (a sort of macro site for struggle over cultural symbols) but also collective behavior. Much has been written about Political Opportunity and Political Process models of collective behavior--as well as New Social Movement theory--that I feel would compliment and strengthen your analysis.

    Whereas you attribute the clash of discourses to individual actors, their motives and their performances, these sociological schools would point to, respectively, opportunities, mobilizing structures, and "oppositional cultures" as integral preconditions or staging grounds for such contests. It is essential that we take into account preexisting disparities in political power and access to social (economic) and cultural (symbolic) resources when we interpret events which, like the Stewart/Cramer debate, take place at the literal nexus of said resources.

    Thanks for posting this, I'm gonna have to read up on some of your sources. The Clark and Cottle pieces sound really interesting. :)

  2. Definitely agree with you on many levels. I love postmodern theories, but it's hard not to talk yourself in circles when using them. Actually, I'm not a fan of the Cottle article, but it was a required source for this paper.

    Thanks for reading! I know it's a little dense/tldr for a blog post.