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Funny? Maybe until he’s interviewing you

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 typically 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.

In the process, the host of “The Daily Show” provided one of those memorable television moments that distill the public mood -- in this case, angst about the economy’s swift decline. Stewart also displayed the tough interviewing skills that belie his insistence that he’s merely an entertainer.

“It does give us pause when we tell journalism students or the public that he’s not a journalist,” said Charles Bierbauer, a veteran correspondent for CNN and ABC who is now dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies. “He can be one when he wants to be.”

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The much-hyped showdown between the two men grew out of a bit last week on “The Daily Show” in which Stewart satirized CNBC’s coverage of the market as overly credulous. But by the end of Cramer’s appearance on the late-night program Thursday, the episode was being cast as a triumph for Stewart and a public relations disaster for CNBC, which airs Cramer’s show, “Mad Money.”

James Fallows of the Atlantic declared that Stewart “has become Edward R. Murrow,” while Rick Aristotle Munarriz of the investor website the Motley Fool concluded that “financial journalism’s biggest celebrity looked defeated.” Stewart even got a shout-out from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who praised him for asking “a lot of tough questions.”

“ ‘The Daily Show’ has delivered a reminder of the need for independent-minded journalism -- and in the process rendered CNBC a laughingstock to many casual viewers that might not have afforded the channel much thought previously,” Brian Lowry wrote on Variety.com.

It was not the first time that Stewart, unencumbered by the restraints of mainstream journalism, has been lauded for his skills as an interviewer, and it was another reminder of how entertainers -- whether it’s Stewart skewering pundits, Oprah Winfrey endorsing candidate Barack Obama or the women on “The View” engaging in confrontational debates -- can inject themselves into public debate.

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The white-hot spotlight on the Stewart-Cramer face-off -- bannered across the front of USA Today and breathlessly promoted on cable news -- underscored the public’s hunger for catharsis at a time of widespread economic instability. The guilty plea this week of financier Bernard L. Madoff, who admitted swindling his investors out of billions of dollars, has only fed the populist mood.

Stewart appeared attuned to that when he laid into Cramer, who adopted an unusually restrained response to the comedian’s sharp questioning.

“CNBC could be an incredibly powerful tool of illumination,” Stewart said, but instead there is “a game that you know is going on but you go on television as a financial network and pretend isn’t happening.”

“Absolutely we could do better,” Cramer agreed. “Absolutely, there are shenanigans, and we should call them out. Everyone should. I should do a better job at it. . . . How about if I try?”

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That didn’t placate Stewart, who pressed Cramer about comments he made during a 2006 interview with TheStreet .com in which he casually discussed how to manipulate stock prices.

“I understand you want to make finance entertaining,” the comedian said. “But it’s not a . . . game. And when I watch that, I can’t tell you how angry that makes me.”

Stewart acknowledged that his ire was aimed more broadly at CNBC and the financial press in general for not alerting the public to the market’s highly leveraged structure.

“To pretend that this was some sort of crazy once-in-a-lifetime tsunami that nobody could have seen coming is disingenuous at best and criminal at worst,” he said.

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The face-off between the two men drew 2.3 million viewers, second in audience for the year only to “The Daily Show’s” Inauguration Day episode, making Thursday’s show one of the program’s top 10 most-watched, according to Comedy Central, the Viacom-owned network that carries the show. Clips from the interview were ubiquitous online, driving record traffic to TheDaily Show.com for 2009.

On Friday, Cramer tried to make light of the pounding he took. Speaking to his viewers on “Mad Money,” the host declared that, “Although I was clearly outside of my safety zone, I have the utmost respect for this person and the work that they do, no matter how uncomfortable it was.” He then cut to a clip of him making a cream pie with Martha Stewart on her daytime show Thursday.

But the “Daily Show” interview drew cringes inside NBC, which relies heavily on CNBC for not only the revenue it generates but also for its business journalism. CNBC anchor Erin Burnett is a frequent guest on “Meet the Press” and “Today,” and “NBC Nightly News” makes regular use of CNBC correspondents.

Network insiders admitted privately that Cramer’s appearance on “The Daily Show” was a misfire but said they had been taken aback by the vehemence of Stewart’s attacks.

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On Friday, NBC did its best to avoid further feeding the story. MSNBC, CNBC’s sister cable channel, which had hyped the encounter in advance, largely avoided the topic. CNBC officials declined to comment on the episode and instead released a broad statement defending the network’s coverage.

“Recognized as the worldwide leader in business news, CNBC produces more than 150 hours of live television a week that includes more than 850 interviews in the service of exposing all sides of every critical financial and economic issue,” said spokesman Brian Steel. “We are proud of our record and remain committed to delivering coverage in real-time during this extraordinary story and beyond.”

John Rash, senior vice president and director of media analysis for the ad firm Campbell Mithun, said the network would probably not suffer a drop in audience as a result of Stewart’s denunciations.

“It’s unlikely core and committed CNBC viewers will stray because of the events this week,” Rash said. “It’s more of a hit to their reputation as opposed to their rating.”

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To recover, he added, the network should point to the tough coverage it has done, such as investigations by correspondent David Faber, whose two-hour documentary “House of Cards” aired last month.

“CNBC doesn’t need to retool,” Rash said, “but it may need to reemphasize its journalistic roots and get as aggressive as Jon Stewart did with the network.”

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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