Do your job!

March 17, 2009


Sometimes, after a long spell of incompetence, even doing the simple things right makes you a hero.


In the last two weeks, the American media has been gripped by the slugfest between The Daily Show comedian Jon Stewart and CNBC host of Mad Money Jim Cramer. Stewart, master of faux news, had invited Cramer, an economist, to his show. Why, Stewart asked, did business networks like CNBC and finance talk-shows like Mad Money not see the financial crisis coming? Why did they, even weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns, encourage people to buy their shares? Why did such networks and shows, who knew about all the short-selling, complex financial instruments and packages, derivatives and other ethically and morally dubious ‘Wall Street strategies’ not call them out? Why, Stewart grilled, did they persist in pretending everything was alright and, when the crisis happened, pretend that this was a tsunami that no one saw coming? Financial experts saw the signs, they just shut the blinds.


Why? Why? Why? As Stewart, who was visibly angry, pummeled into the celebrity financial guru, Cramer, who dispenses advice to investors on his own show, sat like a squeaming punching-bag, offering no real reply. To be fair, Stewart’s anger and questions were not directed at the man across him but at the larger networks and army of financial experts who failed to be an effective watchdog of Wall Street. []


The wave of support for Stewart’s relentless interrogation of the hapless Cramer was astonishing. The Daily Show website reported record hits, all the talk shows have covered the interview and President Obama was even asked about it. Just google ‘Stewart Cramer’ and you’ll get endless references to the interview.


On the surface it seems much ado about nothing. A comedian attacking a financial expert? Over finance? Where are the laughs in that? But the sheer popularity of the episode is symptomatic of how institutions can lose sight of their raison d’etre and fail the very people they were set up to inform and education. The failure of mainstream American business networks and papers to ask the hard questions during the good times, to dismantle opaque rhetoric from bankers and politicians and to alert ordinary people to the shenanigans that were doing on in the “back room of the market”, Stewart’s words, have resulted in a pressure cooker of resentment and despondence that The Daily Show grilling managed to release.


In the end, it took a comedian to do the job.


But the rise of alternative institutions to do the job of established ones is not new. Here in Singapore we have bloggers and websites like the Wayang Party Club, TOC and the Singapore Enquirer who are doing more than just spouting opinion but also creating news and, to some extent, delving into investigative journalism. I personally do not agree with everything that comes out from these websites. They seem to be forced into a polemical position, which I sometimes eschew, because they take their reference point from the very thing they were set up to be an alternative to – the mainstream media.


However, these websites did not just come from nowhere, much like Stewart’s rant did not emanate from a vacuum. Instead, both are the creation of failure – failure of institutions like CNBC and, in Singapore’s case, The Straits Times and other mainstream SPH or Mediacorp owned news entities to be more than platforms for government rhetoric and ‘nation-building’. Alternative news source do not simply appear if established ones are doing their job. How can they? Established newspapers have far better resources, contacts and time to produce far better products. Instead, we have newspapers that are unabashedly pro-government instead of pro-Singapore. It’s commonly acknowledged by the academic and diplomatic circles that if you want understand the region, The Straits Times is not a bad source. But if you want a real picture of Singapore, go online.


Just off the cuff, one can name a list of things that the mainstream media was slow to latch on, leaving others to ask the hard questions. The details surrounding Mas Selamat’s escape (netizens and international media); disclosure of Temasek and GIC accounts (netizens and other sources), high notes and mini bonds (Tan Kin Lian and those affected), President Nathan’s reasons for unlocking the reserves (netizens) and so on. The fact is, Singapore is becoming a more open society in spite of our mainstream media.


Until the established institutions being to take stock of themselves, we’ll always be reliant on alternative sources and active citizenry. As Stewart pleaded with Cramer, “Please do your job so I can go back to making fart jokes!”.    




One Response to “Do your job!”

  1. quintet Says:

    “Until the established institutions being to take stock of themselves, we’ll always be reliant on alternative sources and active citizenry.”

    Spot on.
    But it will be futile to expect established institutions to take stock of themselves as long as the lightning party is in power. So it is not going to happen.

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