NEW YORK // A television channel devoted to business news might not seem an obvious source of humour, but Jon Stewart, a comedian whom polls show to be one of the most admired "news" figures in the United States, seems to have hit the mark. A video of Stewart's seven-minute skewering of cable channel CNBC, taken from his television programme, The Daily Show, was an instant internet hit in a week that saw even the president talk about "cable chatter".
Barack Obama has recently unveiled some of the most ambitious spending plans seen in the United States as his administration grapples with the worst economic crisis since the Second World War. But he has drawn flak from some very vocal critics, including Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio talk show host, and Rick Santelli, who was until recently a little-known reporter for CNBC. Santelli shot to fame last month after he delivered a live diatribe against Mr Obama's economic plans from the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade that struck a chord with those who worry about any dilution of free market principles. He called people struggling to pay their mortgages "losers" and said a government plan to help them was "promoting bad behaviour".
"This is America," he yelled. "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbour's mortgage?" Although Mr Obama still scores high approval ratings in opinion polls, many people worry about his mortgage modification plan, worth US$75 billion (Dh275bn), which aims to help an estimated nine million homeowners avoid foreclosure. Stewart's rant against CNBC came after Santelli accepted and then refused an invitation to appear on The Daily Show although he has done other interviews after millions watched his outburst on the internet.
In his CNBC segment, Stewart starts by mockingly saying "loser" homeowners should have paid more attention to the cable channel and then proceeds to show an embarrassing parade of wrong predictions and forecasts CNBC broadcast this past year. The clips include reassuring CNBC commentary about Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers not long before the two investment banks failed under the weight of toxic loans.
CNBC presenters also delivered upbeat forecasts of AIG, the troubled insurance giant and recipient of billions of bailout dollars. In an interview last year with Sir Allen Stanford, the financier now suspected of running a pyramid scheme, he was asked if "it's fun being a billionaire". He replied yes. "If I had only followed CNBC's advice, I'd have a million dollars today," Stewart says. "Provided I started out with $100 million."
Media commentators said Stewart accurately reflected popular sentiment, which blames Wall Street fat cats for the economic crisis, although concern is rising over recent plunging stock markets. Santelli and CNBC refused to comment. Stewart insists he aims to entertain, not inform, and found a wealth of material during the eight years of George W Bush's presidency. He used a Sesame Street-style puppet called Gitmo to talk about torture under Mr Bush, who also featured in a cartoon strip called The Decider.
A Pew Research Center opinion poll in 2007 put Stewart in fourth place among the country's most admired news figures, ahead of the broadcasters Ted Koppel and Diane Sawyer. The Daily Show received some of its highest ratings - 2.4 million - in early October before the presidential election in November. Mr Obama, meanwhile, insisted he was going to cut government spending eventually. He did not refer to Santelli and other right-wing critics by name when he said on Wednesday: "I want to make sure everyone catches this because I think sometimes the chatter on the cable stations hasn't been clear about this."
Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said Santelli had probably never read the details of the mortgage plan. But he also said it was probably counterproductive to engage with the reporter. Mr Obama's critics will have much to vent about as he embarks on other costly reforms set to embrace the healthcare system and environmental regulation. Across the country, activists have organised dozens of taxpayer tea parties, inspired by one in Boston in 1773 that was an act of protest by American colonists against Britain. It sparked events that eventually led to US independence.
Santelli had called on air for a "Chicago Tea Party", but has since denied any affiliation with the tea party movement. But many US residents were inspired by him. FreedomWorks, a non-profit group opposed to Mr Obama's stimulus spending, has give Santelli pride of place on its website. firstname.lastname@example.org