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     Mar 18, 2009
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Justice on Comedy Central
By Julian Delasantellis

From the prosecution of Socrates in 399 BC to the 1995 Pauly Shore movie Jury Duty, the trial, the phenomenon of the community coming together to hear charges and sanction a social offender, has been a core theme in both the operation and mythology of human society.

Even amidst the crass brutality of Roman dominion over a conquered province, the rulers still arranged for the farce of some manner of trial for Jesus to try to convince their Judean subjects that the question of when their lives could be taken was not totally random, that there was at least some manner of justice and


judicial process among all Rome's boundless cruelties.

Sixteen centuries later the persecuted became the persecutors, as the Catholic Church in Rome, and the Puritans in colonial Massachusetts, put Galileo and the Salem witches on trial for offenses against Christ's kingdoms on Earth.

In more recent times, the trial has morphed into a new institution in order to serve new purposes. The 1894 trial of French army captain Louis Dreyfus served not to have the guilty man bear society's approbation but to have French society replace the innocent Dreyfus in the dock, that society charged with anti-Semitism and prejudice. In the 1930s, Soviet Communist Party leader Joseph Stalin desiccated the very purpose of a trial, to seek the truth, with his totally scripted and choreographed show trials where defendants, most prominently former communist party comrades of Soviet-state founder Vladimir Lenin, were tortured sufficiently to have them confess to their roles in the most improbable of foreign conspiracies.

Finally, two recent American trials, that of OJ Simpson for murder in 1995, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, served to demonstrate just how badly the nation was split along racial and cultural lines.

In literature and film, the trial framework has frequently served to clarify issues of good and evil, with one character representing one moral pole, another the opposite.

Franz Kafka's 1925 The Trial explores the awesome power of the modern state to crush the individual. In Stanley Kramer's 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg, about the post-World War II Nuremberg War Crimes trials, the defense of evil being so powerful and all-encompassing so as to be unable to be resisted by the individual is disproved with the confessed cowardice and mendacity of one man, Nazi judge Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). Finally, the 1982 movie The Verdict, proved that you can bury the facts under lies like refuse in a landfill, but still people will hunger for the truth.

Last week, there was a truly momentous trial in the world of finance. I'm not talking about the confessions of Bernie Madoff; he booked his current reservation to his Spartan digs of Federal incarceration decades ago, when first he started his Ponzi scheme. No, what was really in the dock last week was Wall Street and its lackey business media, for its decisive complicity in the worldwide financial catastrophe crushing the capitalist world.

The verdict? A resounding guilty on all counts. Maybe OJ could go home and sleep in his Brentwood mansion the day after his verdict, for the US media, should they indeed prove to have a conscience, it should imprison them for many years to come.

You might think that Americans, inheritors of an economy that has dominated the world for most of the last century, might take pride in the extent of their being up-to-date on current economics and business affairs, but that is not the case. They certainly don't get their news on finance from newspapers; those that are still existent lost the raison d'etre for their business pages about 40 years ago, when the large metropolitan dailies stopped publishing late-afternoon editions with closing Wall Street stock prices in them.

Push forward to today, with the twin holocausts of Craigslist and the recession that is consuming the industry, and even the Washington Post, the premiere daily newspaper in a market where you might think that being up on what's going on in the economy could be considered important, is ending the practice of producing a separate business section in the paper.

The Wall Street Journal produces a very comprehensive compendium of business and finance news (as long as you don't do a Lot's wife by turning to its editorial pages and allowing your brain to be turned into a pillar of mush), but because it lacks a comics, horoscope or celebrity-gossip section, is rarely read by a general audience.

It's no better on TV. Local television can't seem to differentiate between economics and personal finance/lifestyle news; they would see nothing incongruous about a report on stock prices being followed with one giving advice to viewers about what are the best times to go traipsing through the drive-through zoo to see the most monkey house shenanigans.

Network TV tries better, but they know that there's just so many times they can show viewers the same old stock footage of store-tellers making change from a cash register or sheets of hundred dollar bills rolling off the mint without the whole thing becoming droll. That necessitates economics and finance stories being brief, and so, not all that in depth.

That leaves cable TV, and that means General Electric's CNBC. Born out of the ashes of its failed, actual over-the-air competitor, the Financial News Network (FNN) in 1989, CNBC has been a very consistent moneymaker for its corporate parent. This is especially important in times such as today, when the company's ill-advised foray into the capital markets with its GE Capital subsidiary is dragging Tom Edison's proud 131-year-old brainchild straight down into the ravenous maw of the financial crisis.

It's not that the network produces great ratings. By any measure, it's daytime ratings, representing coverage of the US stock markets, are substandard. Up until very recently, at night, when the markets are closed, small stations broadcasting a test pattern watched by stoners probably pulled in better ratings than did CNBC. What makes CNBC so valuable is the quality of its ratings numbers, representing high-income and high net-worth traders and investors - that is, those viewers advertisers desperately want to reach, as opposed to Jerry Springer's much-larger bands of battling trailer-park incestuates whom CNBC's advertisers would want nowhere near either their establishment or merchandise.

But early in this decade, there were fears at NBC headquarters that a pretender was marching upon the palace to steal the golden chalice. Rupert Murdoch announced that his News Corporation would launch a CNBC rival, Fox Business Network (FBN), to try to siphon off some of that high-quality advertising lucre from GE. The entire cable news industry watched as Time-Warner's Cable News Network helplessly allowed Murdoch's Fox News Channel to run away and hide with the ratings leadership in cable news; GE was determined that Murdoch would not be allowed a similar free-kick at CNBC.

What did Murdoch want with his new playtoy? Well, analysts who looked at each and every one of his media acquisitions and startups across the world correctly assumed that FBN was to be another outlet for his conservative philosophy. As applied to business news, that meant more corporate-friendly stories - less investigative antagonism that challenged the boundless wisdom of all the Great Men in the corner executive suite. "We want to be more business-friendly," Murdoch said on February, 2007. CNBC he characterized as "too negative", as "they leap on every scandal".

Observers such as the New York Times's Frank Rich found that hilarious, noting the goo-goo-eyed breathlessness that was the tone of CNBC's coverage of the late-1990s dot-com stock boom. Still, the challenge had been laid down.

In contrast to all the idolatrous press coverage they usually get these days, there's absolutely no reason to believe that corporate CEOs and other company chieftains are all that bright; with so much distance between their existences and those of regular folks, their evolutionary impulses can afford to become a bit dull; it's only us folks down at the bottom who need wits sharp enough to survive. GE didn't come up with a new strategy to take down Fox Business - it just stole Fox's and used it as their own. In the dying words of Count Alfred von Schlieffen, the 19th century Prussian army officer who devised the plan that Germany would use to attack France in the early days of World War I, GE would be sure to "keep the right flank strong".

CNBC became a sort of bizarre mirror image to the left-wing voices who found a home on GE's other basic cable news service, MSNBC. Opinionated, strident, right-wing hosts such as Dennis Kneale were hired; others, such as former Ronald Reagan-era official Larry Kudlow (who now says that the solution to America's energy woes is for the Monroe Doctrine to be invoked to justify the "taking out" of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez) were given extra air-time and responsibilities. Even the network's pin-up star, the curvaceous "Money Honey" Maria Bartiromo, allowed her questions and commentaries to take on a new, distinctly more pointed and partisan tone.

Also, the network tried to hew more closely to the winning formula in US cable news, where heated conflict and sharply polarized debate are in, and reasoned, nuanced explorations of issues out.

To paraphrase the old joke about professional ice hockey in North America, one went to a fight, and a cable news show broke out.

Whatever it was, the formula worked. Fox Business has failed to replicate the success of Fox News - the angry lower middle-class whites who are Fox News' most loyal audiences apparently don't have enough money to care that much about what's going on in the financial markets. Immediately following its highly publicized launch in October 2007, FBN's early ratings were atrocious, attracting scarcely 7,000 viewers nationwide during the day - barely enough for the Nielsen ratings company to consider the survey statistically reliable. At that point, in late 2007, CNBC was beating FBN in the ratings game by almost 47 to 1.

Fox Business's ratings improved to 80,000 weekday viewers during the worst of last autumn's financial crisis, but CNBC was then still beating it by over 10 to 1.

With the end of the Bush administration, CNBC was freed from the cognitive dissonance of having conservatives having to comment on the worst economic crisis in 70 years and it having been brought on by conservatives in government and their conservative ideology - they did that by heaping as much approbation as they could generate on the poor, hoodwinked, subprime mortgage borrowers, mostly ignoring the dysfunction of the financial system that originated and then globally disseminated the mortgages.

With the advent of President Barack Obama, CNBC was free to throw off all restraint and become another Fox News. Most illustrative of this is the famed "Santelli rant" of late February, where CNBC's Rick Santelli criticized Obama's mortgage relief plan by calling borrowers in danger of foreclosure "losers". (See A scam at the heart of the US, Asia Times Online, February 26, 2009, for my report on the Santelli movement, which continues to thrive and grow in desperate white suburbia.)

At the same time, the network's biggest moneymaker, the convulsively corybantic former hedge-fund trader and thestreet.com founder Jim Cramer, whose "Bernanke rant" in early August 2007 actually introduced the financial crisis to many Americans, jumped into the fray.

In response to Obama's announcement that he intended to fulfill a campaign pledge to raise the highest marginal income tax rates back to their Clinton era levels of 39.6%, Cramer took to calling Obama a "Bolshevik" who was "taking clues from Lenin". Using a historical analogy as teaching tool, he also said that "Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace - Obama got elected. Hard to tell the difference when he's talking about how now is not the time for profits. By the way, my great-great-granduncle [Lenin] often said that now is not the time for profits." Cramer said that there was also little difference between the Democratic majority in Congress and the Lenin-era Politburo, calling Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi the "General Secretary of the Communist Party".

Funny how CNBC failed to realize, even in the midst of a crisis that commenced with housing, how inadvisable it was for it to throw stones from behind the walls of its glass houses.

Continued 1 2  

China on the brink
(Feb 12,'09)

And the band played on
(Mar 6,'09)

1. Before the stampede

2. Pakistan takes a turn to the right

3. This almost-chosen,
almost-pregnant land

4. Is the Israel lobby running scared?

5. The not-so-safe haven

6. A wary Arab world eyes Iran's elections

7. India tackles non-state actors

8. India frets over US's Chinamania

9. Vietnam bauxite plan opens pit of concern

10. China-Nepal ties reach new heights

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Mar 16, 2009)



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