On Wednesday night's Daily Show, Jon Stewart and his team struggled with how to make people pay attention to corporate malfeasance. Not surprisingly, they settled on comedy. Stewart framed his part by showing that corporations are not, as Mitt Romney claimed (and the Supreme Court has endorsed), people. Samantha Bee, for her part, got naked.
Stewart started by revisiting the relative slaps on the wrist Wall Street banks have received for knowingly selling hundreds of thousands of sketchy mortgages. He has talked about this before — as well as the not-exactly-adversarial role cable business-news networks take in covering (or not covering) these settlements.
This time, Stewart summed up the fines these banks are paying for their lucrative wrongdoing in his best Brooklyn mobster voice: "I'm sorry I committed systemic fraud for 10 years. How about I give you a cut of it?" The mantra in white-collar banking, he added, is "Don't do the crime if you can't pay the nominal fine."
But banks aren't the only bad actors in the corporate world. Stewart pointed out a recent $2 billion fine Johnson & Johnson paid to settle charges they bribed doctors to prescribe useless drugs to the elderly, the disabled, and infants — "You're not even allowed to do that in Grand Theft Auto!" he protested.
Here's "the definitive proof" that corporations aren't people, Stewart concluded: Corporate executives avoid jail time for their fraud, money laundering, and "bribe-enabled placebo baby-drugging" by simply paying back a portion of their "ill-gotten gains." People get busted on a regular basis for no reason at all.
That's Jon Stewart, moral crusader.
In the second part of the show he brought out Samantha Bee to look more explicitly at why these corporate crimes aren't, well, news. Their test case was a Bloomberg News scoop about private-equity firm Blackstone and a deal it cut with European betting-parlor operator Codere. Blackstone bought a credit default swap that would pay them if Codere defaulted on a loan, then lent $100 million to Codere on the condition it trigger the default.
The deal is pretty shady. But it is also, Stewart noted, perfectly legal. And, Bee added, it was covered by exactly zero financial news networks.
To find out why, Bee interviewed financial journalist Gretchen Morgenson at The New York Times. Morgenson explained that there's a rule of thumb at the financial news networks that if you can't explain a story in 10 seconds, you don't cover it — then added that she didn't cover it herself because she and her New York Times colleagues are "busier than a one-armed paper hanger covering the miscreants" on Wall Street when they identify themselves.
This is where the fun starts. Bee, on her crusade to make the Blackstone-Codere deal front-page news, visited the offices of "the pros" at BuzzFeed, tried to make a viral video with kittens, roped in an NY1 weatherman, and finally channeled Miley Cyrus. It is something to behold. CNBC and Fox Business Network could learn a thing or two. Watch: