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Who's More to Blame: Bernie Madoff or the Media?

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The case for the media, by Tim Beyers
Bernie Madoff versus The Media. Or, if you want to put a face to it: Jim Cramer. Call it the Battle of the Scapegoats.

Let's talk about Madoff first. Arguably the greatest rip-off artist in history, the one-time superstar fund manager paid existing investors with new money. He ran a Ponzi scheme that's now estimated to have destroyed some $65 billion in assets.

And almost everyone was wiped out. Everyone except Bernie's wife, Ruth, who allegedly withdrew millions in ill-gotten wealth weeks before the scandal broke. It really doesn't get more unseemly than this.

Yet here's the problem: Madoff didn't read the paper one day, spot the subprime craze, and decide to become a crook. No, he got an early start. Madoff said in a statement to the court that he began using new money to pay out gains in the early 1990s.

Thus, blaming Madoff for this mess is like blaming the guy who invented lead-based paint for the 2007 toy recalls that tortured RC2 (Nasdaq: RCRC  ) and Mattel. What's Madoff got do with housing? Banking? Nothing, of course.

Blaming The Media is easier, and more accurate. Quoting from Cramer's Oct. 6 interview on NBC's Today:

Whatever you may need for the next five years, please take it out of the stock market. Right now. This week. I do not believe that you should risk those assets in the stock market.

You know what happened immediately after? Panic. Mass selling of top businesses such as Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) . We've yet to recover -- and that's at least part of the problem for ailing financials. Depressed equity prices make it difficult for banks not named Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) to raise the capital needed to shore up battered balance sheets. And when bank balance sheets get battered ...

... Tim Geithner comes to the rescue. Need I say more?

The case for Bernard Madoff, by Alyce Lomax
Ignorance is bliss, until it's not.

It looks like I don't have much time to bask in the glory of the victory of my anything-but-dream-team, Bernie Madoff, having beaten rom-com actress Kate Hudson in our Meltdown edition of March Madness. Drat. Now it's time for Bernie to take on Team Media.

Once again, I contend that Bernie Madoff is as good a symbol as anyone or anything of the myriad flaws that fed into our giant bubble-turned-meltdown. Madoff's promises of regular, outsized investment returns through good times and bad made little logical sense, but who wants logic when the money's rolling in? It looks like many people thought getting rich could be and should be easy, logic be damned.

Who wants to pay a lick of attention, either, apparently? A recent Forbes article brought up an interesting question: Why was Harry Markopolos the only one who seemed to have any clue? Madoff's bank, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) , apparently didn't notice the suspicious way money was moving around. Nor did an employee benefit plan that lost $54.5 million, or 35 labor unions that lost $10 million from their pension plans. And of course, the clueless Securities & Exchange Commission factor simply goes without saying.

The Bernie Madoff saga sums up a time when being bearish, or having questions about the logic of a situation, was seen as being kind of a party pooper, a pain in the posterior, maybe even an evil short seller. Ignorance is bliss! Until it's not, of course.

True, the media's fairly fraught with losers, and it has its own share of ignorance -- look no further than the stock quotes of New York Times (NYSE: NYT  ) , Gannett, and other struggling media outlets. But let's not forget that were it not for the media, we wouldn't know what color suit Bernie Madoff wore to the courtroom, or that right before the word broke about the fraud, somehow a bunch of Tiffany (NYSE: TIF  ) and Cartier baubles had been sent to friends and family.

However, I can't blame the media; unfortunately, if the media fed into the era of unbridled excess, I'm afraid that's mostly because it was giving us what we want: more of that happy talk, and little common-sense skepticism. We won't get better until we expect better. That's child's play, though, in comparison to the issues that allowed a $65 billion fraud to take place. Vote for Bernie.

Check out the Fool’s entire 2009 March Madness bracket here.

Microsoft is an Inside Value pick. Apple is a Stock Advisor selection. RC2 is a Hidden Gems recommendation. JPMorgan Chase is a former Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try any of these Foolish services free for 30 days. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Fool contributor Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Fool contributor Tim Beyers had stock and options positions in Apple at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. The Fool's disclosure policy would panic if TV Land canceled I Love Lucy reruns.

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 27, 2009, at 5:52 PM, Puckplayr4 wrote:

    I agree Cramer is a dope, but it's Madoff to blame...or as pointed out in this article, the capitalistic piggish mentality which has been around in force since the cash-grabbing 1980's.

    The fault lies with ourselves of course...we overpay when a stock is overvalued, and we sell when there is panic. Sheeps lead to slaughter, and we want to point the finger at the shepherd. Why don't you stop being a sheep!

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