Jim Cramer, Jon Stewart, CNBC and the problem with doing 17 hours of live TV a day

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“We’re fair game,” Jim Cramer said early in his conversation with Jon Stewart Thursday night. “We’re a big network. We’ve been out front. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve got 17 hours of live TV a day to do.”

“Maybe you could cut down on that,” Stewart suggested.

Cramer laughed, Stewart cut to a commercial break, and the topic didn’t come up again.

But it seems to like the most crucial topic of all. Even with the best of intentions, you can’t be on the air live for 17 hours a day and only broadcast intelligent things. And CNBC’s intention is not to do good, but to get as many affluent people as possible to watch it for as long as possible. So despite the fact that it employs lots of smart people, and they’re not out to do evil, the bulk of what CNBC produces is worse-than-useless noise. Now the bulk of what the news media as whole (myself included) produce is probably noise, but it’s on cable TV news that mismatch between time on air and useful information imparted is most dramatic. Producing 17 hours of live TV a day takes flaws inherent in the way we do journalism here in the U.S. (for more on that, see Poniewozik’s take) and magnifies them 100-fold.

Cramer’s own trajectory makes this case pretty well. He was a newspaper journalist before he went on Wall Street, and in the 1990s he confined his market musings to paper (and then to pixels), and most of what he wrote was pretty smart. My introduction to him was his column in SmartMoney in the early 1990s, and I remember really liking it. He remains an engaging writer: Just check out his autobiographical New York magazine cover story from two years ago. But on CNBC he’s on air so much and is allowed such free rein that he ends up spouting a huge amount of nonsense. Too much even for Rick Santelli, whose silly housing rant a couple weeks ago is what sparked Stewart’s current obsession with CNBC: Santelli went on an anti-Cramer rant one day last year. I think the biggest weakness of TV star Cramer is that he’s unwilling to acknowledge that he’s become a loudmouth entertainer who shouldn’t be taken very seriously. If he had admitted such a thing to Stewart, the conversation would have been a lot less painful.

But the unavoidable truth here is that a large percentage of cable-TV news is really stupid. It can be useful and sometimes even smart when actual big news is happening—CNBC got almost every important bit of news first during the TARP drama in September and October. But when nothing big is going on the need to (a) fill airtime and (b) keep viewers watching leads to the production of hours and hours of mind-rotting junk.

Exposing the junkiness of most cable TV news has been a major theme of the Daily Show (which has a mere two hours of airtime to fill each week) for years—remember how Stewart killed CNN’s Crossfire? I don’t think he’s going to succeed in killing CNBC. But maybe he can get it down to 15 or 16 hours of live TV a day.