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"Finance isn't a game"

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

The financial crisis has prompted some discussion about the role of the media in this particular recession. From the perspective of accountability that's an interesting question: What if the media become cheerleaders for those they are supposed to hold accountable? According to some reports in the Financial Times earlier this year this has indeed happened this year and last, or, at least, the media has failed it's mandate as watchdog during and leading up to the current financial crisis.

The media is supposed to be the Fourth Estate, checking the powerful and holding them accountable for their actions that affect the people. Former Financial Times editor Richard Lambert complained in December last year that the media failed this mandate and actually helped deepen the financial crisis through reckless journalism. He warned that unsubstantiated rumors, careless headlines, and injudicious reporting can become self-fulfilling prophesies of quite some serious nature. Quote: "What makes me sick…is some of the sloppier journalism we have seen in recent months. For example, ABC Bank is in difficulty - XYZ is in the same line of business, and unnamed analysts say that it is next in line for trouble.”

And the media didn't see the crisis coming. Another Special Report in the Financial Times counts five points why they didn't: competitive pressure for scoops; lack of professional training in business; lack of attention to economic history and previous crises; journalists as “cheerleaders for speculative frenzy”; and lack of courage to criticize greed and predict an economic crash because one's job may be on the line. The latter troubles me the most. If journalists don't have the courage to hold the powers that be accountable, then what happens to democracy as, for instance, Bentham and de Tocqueville imagined it?

A fascinating example of an inter-media discussion about the media's role and accountability happened in March this year. CNBC anchor Jim Cramer, presenter of the show Mad Money, criticized the Obama government's social reforms as "the greatest wealth destruction I've seen by a president." Earlier rantings of Cramer and other CNBC journalists made one wonder on whose side the media were in this instance. There's reason to suspect that it wasn't the citizens' side. Interestingly, another media outlet took them on: Jon Stewart interviewed Cramer in his Daily Show on the Comedy Central channel and took the gloves off: "I understand you want to make finance entertaining - but it's not a game!"

Jon Stewart isn't a journalist, at least he insists he isn't.  Although the Daily Show has become one of the most important sources of political information for young people in the US, he maintains he's a comedian. So - a comedian takes the "serious" media on, reminding them that they're supposed to watch, not to play. I'm not sure whether I should be depressed or applaud Jon Stewart - probably both. Do we really need comedians to watch over democracy? As Aristotle wrote in his Poetics: "Comedy is ... an imitation of inferior people." If some media turned out to be the "inferior people" in this financial crisis, I'd say something is rotten in the Fourth Estate.

Photo credit: Flickr user Tawcan

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