Getting Grilled on Today

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If CNBC’s stable of carnival barkers, as the New York Times’ Frank Rich described them, were anticipating sympathetic interlocutors on NBC’s Today, they have been sadly disappointed.

Since the financial system began to circle the drain last year, CNBC has deployed its anchors to walk viewers through the market morass on various NBC News programs. Dylan Ratigan has spent considerable time on the Today couch. And Erin Burnett has been a regular guest at the Meet the Press round table.

But Today co-hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira have separately taken CNBC’s Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer to the wood shed.

Last week, Lauer pressed Santelli to explain his assertions that he felt threatened by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ comments about Santelli’s no-bailouts-for-homeowners rant. Santelli attempted to explain himself by telling Lauer that it was Gibbs’ “body language” that gave him the heebie-jeebies. The explanation was hard to swallow especially since Santelli was clearly enjoying the attention - at least until Jon Stewart tore into him (and the network) after Santelli canceled an appearance on TheDaily Show.

But Santelli was on a remote from Chicago. And a remote hook-up can camouflage all manner of awkward tics.

On the other hand, Cramer was live and in person at Today’s Rockefeller Center studios earlier this week. It was meant to be an image repair mission after a subsequent Daily Show segment about Cramer’s infamous endorsements of various financial institutions including Bear Stearns and Wachovia.

Wearing an ill-fitting suit and standing at a monitor with Vieira and Burnett, both of whom are taller than the elfin Cramer, the excitable analyst was the picture of unease. When Vieira steered the discussion toward President Obama’s wide-ranging (and very expensive) stimulus package, Burnett offered that the president was trying to do too many things at once. At which point Cramer sarcastically shrugged and sputtered: “stem cells.”

(Burnett cited Intel’s plans to spend “$7 billion to build new plants” in the United States as evidence that the president’s stimulus plans were too grand. “The concern is; are people in this country qualified for those jobs? Maybe not,” she said, adding that we might need “massive retraining programs” because “people may not be ready for the jobs of the new economy.” Now, the last time, I checked, Intel made computer chips. Since when is manufacturing computer chips a new industry? But I digress…)

Cramer was bitterly derisive of Stewart’s damning Daily Show montage.

“A comedian’s attacking me,” he said. “Wow! He runs a variety show!”

“Let’s watch the tape,” said Vieira.

“Why not,” said Cramer.

Dramatic shrug.

As the segment played, the split screen showed an increasingly uncomfortable Cramer.

Burnett attempted to defend her colleague: “Jim has to go out every day and make these calls.”

Dramatic shrug.

Stewart reacted to Cramer’s appearance on Today in yet another segment on Tuesday night. “It put a human face on my mocking, and gave me a sense of the damage I had done to a real person… It’d be like him having to watch me as his Bear Stearns advice wiped out my parents’ 401(k).”

Cramer is scheduled to appear on The Daily Show Thursday.

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