‘The Patients Are Sick’: CNBC’s Dangerous Cosplay

This week, the US garnered the dubious distinction of recording a record number of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths all on the same day.

Because getting a virus, being hospitalized with it, and then ultimately dying from it, are related events, it’s not surprising that records on all three were notched in close proximity. But it speaks to something important. You can cite various metrics which suggest the virus isn’t as deadly now as it was during the first wave, and you can point to better therapeutics, but the cold, hard reality is simply that a record number of people in the world’s richest nation are sick enough to be either hospitalized or dead from COVID-19, nearly 11 months into the pandemic.

On Friday, the US recorded almost 229,000 new cases in 24 hours. I realize that, by now, some people are desensitized to these figures. But try to remember that anyone who lost family members and loved ones during the pandemic probably isn’t “over it,” so to speak. So, just to drive the point home: America logged almost a quarter of a million new infections in a single 24 hour period on Friday.

Also on Friday, the seven-day average for new daily deaths rose to more than 2,000. That hasn’t happened since April. Over the past week, at least fifteen states have logged more fatalities than in any other week of the pandemic.

Nationally, nearly 2,500 more people died on Friday. It was the fourth consecutive day of deaths well in excess of 2,000. Hospitalizations continue to climb. The latest reading from The COVID Tracking Project puts nationwide hospitalizations at more than 101,000.

One ER nurse at a large public hospital in Los Angeles County told The New York Times that this week was “overwhelming.” In a somewhat disturbing assessment, she noted that some patients “don’t even think they are that sick” when they come in. And yet, “their oxygen levels are very low,” she said. “The patients are sick.”

Yes, the patients are sick. And there’s a sense in which the entire country is still sick, both physically and mentally.

Not helping matters are folks like CNBC’s Rick Santelli who, for those not steeped in the lore of CNBC anchors, owes whatever small bit of notoriety he can claim to a financial crisis-era rant about not “subsidiz[ing] the losers’ mortgages.”

Santelli is “credited” (and I use that term very loosely) with founding The Tea Party. One of the most amusing things about Rick is that typically, when one helps establish an offshoot of America’s political duopoly, some measure of national fame ensues. Not for Rick, though. Ask the average American who Rick Santelli is, and they’ll probably shrug their shoulders — “I dunno. Was he a tangential character in The Sopranos? Which season was that?”

On Friday, Santelli engaged in a possibly scripted, one-sided shouting match with Andrew Ross Sorkin, who plays spoiler to Joe Kernen’s comedically sycophantic positions vis-à-vis Republican talking points on the aptly-named “Squawk Box,” a long-running morning program that resembles Fox & Friends if Fox & Friends had a Democratic foil.

I hesitate to feature the actual clip. It’s highly offensive, not to mention potentially dangerous from a public health perspective, but I want to use it to make a point about the pandemic, the media, and public discourse in America.

“You can’t tell me that shutting down — which is the easiest answer —  is necessarily the only answer,” Santelli emoted, during the exchange, before proceeding to regale the audience with an over-the-top version of what passes for libertarian “thinking” in America these days.


“Rick, just as a public health, and a public service announcement for the audience–,” Sorkin ventured. “Wait, wait. First of all, who is this,” Santelli wondered.

Sorkin then attempted to explain why strolling around, say, a cavernous Home Depot where everyone is almost by definition six feet apart, is categorically different from being inside a restaurant, where the ceilings aren’t 30-feet high, people aren’t separated, and everyone can’t possibly wear a mask because, as it turns out, you need your mouth to eat.

But Santelli’s mouth isn’t just for eating. It’s also for screaming. “I disagree! I disagree!,” he shrieked, pretending to be both simultaneously astounded and aggrieved by Sorkin’s remark.

To be clear, there’s nothing to “disagree” with. Santelli posed a straw man argument about “500 people in a Lowe’s” not being “any safer than 150 people in a restaurant that holds 600.” I have no idea whether Santelli has any actual operating experience in the restaurant industry, but I can tell you that he’s categorically wrong. And for a laundry list of reasons, some of which are just common sense and others have to do with how things actually work behind the doors that separate the dining room from the “server alley” (where waiters and waitresses congregate to gossip when they’re not interacting with diners) and the kitchen.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point, rather, is that in my judgment, the clip above (and “Squawk Box” itself) encapsulates everything that’s wrong with public discourse in America and lays bare the extent to which networks prey on the public’s insatiable appetite for bite-sized content featuring vacuous argumentation designed to reflect the culture clash in a divided country.

That’s not constructive. It exacerbates societal rifts and, in my judgment, it’s exploitative.

While I obviously can’t say for sure whether Friday’s exchange between Santelli and Sorkin was literally “scripted,” I can say that there are countless similar exchanges (usually between Sorkin and Kernen) which, if not scripted, are at least in the script, where that means part of the show.

Consider this. Santelli, Kernen, and Sorkin are all millionaires. Many times over. When it comes to their anchor jobs at CNBC, they’re paid to do exactly what they’ve done for the duration of the pandemic — namely, play spoiler to one another, making television just a mirror of America’s increasingly dangerous socioeconomic rifts.

Sorkin, Santelli, and Kernen are engaged in highly-paid cosplay — the educated, liberal “elite” (Sorkin), the angry libertarian emitting faux machismo (Santelli), and the dyed-in-the-wool conservative (Kernen) cynically suggesting, in so many words, that you too can have a $20,000 Rolex if only you work hard enough.

That’s not journalism, it’s theatre. Theatre is fine. Except that off stage (outside the studio), it’s America’s grim reality. And people are dying behind it.

280,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19 or complications of the virus. The health consequences and the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic have fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor and minorities.

Those are the same lower-income Americans and minorities who were already struggling to decide who really cares about them in a country where high-minded rhetoric about “equality of opportunity” is just that — rhetoric. There is no “equality of opportunity.” It’s a myth.

The American version of capitalism touted loudly by folks like Kernen has failed. Inequities are rife, hard work doesn’t always pay off, and inequality of all sorts feeds on itself. In 2020, America reached a breaking point, as the pandemic collided with street protests against racial injustice.

Sorkin, for all his pretensions to the moral high ground, is a millionaire participating in what amounts to a daily, on-air soap opera which, while purporting to be about the economy and the stock market, is in fact just a staged mockery of the American tragedy.

For his part, Santelli is just a television version of the libertarian bloggers pushing ideological poison to the masses, only without the actual ideology. There are a lot of ostensible libertarian crusaders in America these days. You can find them blogging about economics, running hedge funds, or pretending to be portfolio managers on Twitter. But they aren’t libertarians. Virtually none of them have any academic background in political philosophy, and couldn’t name a single thinker from the libertarian tradition they claim to represent. What they push on the public isn’t libertarianism. It’s poison.

The kind of cosplay exemplified by CNBC’s programming is disingenuous, cruel, and exploitative at a time when America can least afford it. And that’s a generous interpretation. A less generous interpretation would be to just call it dangerous.

As Sandra Beltran, the ER nurse at Olive View-U.C.L.A. Medical Center quoted by the Times (and re-quoted above), put it: “The patients are sick.”

Again: There’s a very real sense in which every American is a patient right now. The nation is figuratively ablaze. CNBC’s morning programming is, in many cases, fuel on the fire.

Jim Cramer, for example, called Nancy Pelosi “crazy Nancy” while speaking to her live in a September interview (he later claimed he was merely quoting the president, which just begs the question). More recently, he suggested, in a tweet, that Joe Biden may have to call in the military to remove Trump.

Commenting further, Beltran told the Times “It’s almost like a wildfire. You light up a match and it’s going up.”

She was referencing the influx of COVID-19 patients. But she could just as easily have been diagnosing the state of American society in general.


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43 thoughts on “‘The Patients Are Sick’: CNBC’s Dangerous Cosplay

  1. I’m grateful for this sane “port in a storm”. Unfortunately, when I’m not railing against the Trump forces, I’m kind of floating above, helplessly observing the inexorable collapse of the US. What else can happen when there is no center to hold?
    What can be done?

    1. The Yeats meme about the center is apt. We have now entered our own version of the “Irish Question,” wherein there is no longer any middle ground. So here we go. They’ve been at it over 100 years, btw.

      1. Right you are. Actually, the “Irish Question” should be dated from the late 12th century, when Normans, with the aid of English king Henry II, invaded Ireland and began trying to dominate the Irish clans through battles and rampant castle building. (My ancestors were Irish and English.)

  2. ‘Squawk Box” became unwatchable early on in the pandemic. I stopped watching in April and my disposition has improved noticeably in the months since. They try to sneak Santelli on in other segments, which automatically triggers the mute button in this household. Kelly Evans is another one who’s over-indulged in the libertarian Kool-aid; fully expect her to be joining her pal Maria over at Faux one of these days.

      1. I agree…read from your well-balanced news sources online while listening to music. Exactly what I do almost every time I come here, and what I’m doing right now. One doesn’t need a video spoon-feed…but we all were certainly long-ago conditioned to do just that and it takes just a bit of concerted effort to cut the cord. Spotify and other online music streaming has certainly made it easier to have vast amounts of recorded music at your immediate beck and call.

  3. The fundamental problem is that modern media has gone overdrive on producing addictive content. When one is confronted by reasonable approaches it all seem and is boring. We then gravitated to the presentation style we have been accustomed to and that is feeding our addiction.

    The only solution is to sober up and to limit media consumption. If it seems I am using alcoholic references, it is not an accident.

    1. Yeah, sobering up and limiting consumption. Imagine.

      A reasonable and “boring” approach is PBS Newshour. No one yells on the Newshour. Actually, there are three shows on PBS where no one yells. Guests are not attacked…it must be so disorienting for them.

      I can’t imagine my misinformed and mal-educated sister watching a boring show such as the Newshour. I don’t want to mock my sister and her ilk; but, honestly, I expect they’d sit through the first couple of minutes and ask “What is this? It’s weird.” Their dopamine receptors would stop firing and they’d go back to the Parler.com group that is hashing out the crates in Wayne County, MI, containing uncounted ballots for 45.

  4. I looked it up because I never bothered to before. I found: “Cosplay … the activity or practice of dressing up as a character from a work of fiction (such as a comic book … or television show). That’s the last four years of our lives here. Who’s real anymore?

  5. In just the short amount of time since I have looked at the projections it has become staggering where we are headed. Projections have been upwardly revised in a dramatic fashion. Vacines may dull it by small percentages until widely available.
    By April we will have twice dead what we have now. Well over a half million.
    There is no way a mask infringes on personal liberty any more than asking a woman to cover her breast does. We as a society subscribe to prurient dress codes that infringe on liberty without a second thought.
    Trump as a man,as a human-being has come to represent for the Christian political movement what it finds to be in it’s own self interest. Christianity has shown me to be of no interest of the good samaritan attitude. Church is a money making venue that can not be closed at any human cost. Easter services, the real beginning of this mess.
    The point of no leeway for the republican party.
    I thought the founding fathers were correct to have a separation of Church and State. That separation has been wholely breached by our Federal Governments response to this pandemic by pandering to a voting block.

  6. Spot on. I quit watching CNBC programming a couple years ago as well. It is unfortunate how many lemmings still mistake CNBC, Fox Business, etc. as providing quality information rather than pure entertainment. It’s a disturbing world we live in that applauds new stock market highs while so much pain and suffering is happening elsewhere. In some cases there is a tremendous amount of wealth being created as a result of the virus. The patients, the country, and the world are truly ill right now.

    1. Thank you for printing the truth. I’m a physical therapist who works in a hospital. I drag covid patients out of bed, try to keep them moving, get them sitting up while on the vent. The past 8-9 months have been tough, the past 2 have been tragic.

      The saddest part for me is the senselessness of it all. If people would take it seriously and wear a mask, most of the spread would stop. The “government can’t tell me what to do” crowd has blood on their unmasked faces. A majority of my patients who are hospitalized (the elderly) didn’t go out and get covid, they had it brought to them by someone else who “believes in freedom” and isn’t a “sheep”.

      (Which is really a really interesting choice of words from a group who claim to believe in God and refer to Jesus as the good shepherd)

      1. They believe in a different strand of Christianism. The Christian warrior ideology. Jesus is a fetish for these guys, not a moral compass.

        The American Talibans is an apt description, in concept, if not in degree (yet?)

  7. Pre market opening I tune my tube to Bloomberg so I’m not familiar with the Squawk Box dynamics. I am familiar with Santelli from his occasional appearances during the day on CNBC, I would never describe him as a libertarian, but would certainly attach other “less flattering” terms to him. If Sorking is playing along in a seudo scripted cosplay tv drama that is disappointing, I thought his post mortem book after the GFC was excellent. CNBC is a weird network, some shows and hosts are really solid and offer more than entertainment, others are terrible. You mentioned Cramer, whose ratings must be declining because he has turned into a caricature of the caricature he used to be, some of his recent commentary around the trade war with China and the election can only be described as alarmist. The bottom line as you note is simple, the patient is sick, we are a sick society in a sick country, it is not surprising that TV and other media mirror and feed on that sickness, but are we not entertained?…

  8. Looking to KosiÅ„ski’s ‘Being There’, McLuhan’s ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’, and Paddy Chayefsky’s ‘Network’, you begin to realize how dangerous visual media is as a primary source of information. Mono-sourcing from an emotion-laden format that seeks maximized financial gain has proven to be destructive in America and in much of the world. The latest example resides in the White House.

  9. Well , as usual this is great weekend content H…… I suspect you wanted to go further in your analysis but would have to elaborate on the fact that the script for all of this was written elsewhere simultaneously with the media and their obvious role in this… Leave it to our imaginations to sort out the biases all around us …

  10. I do not watch any news on a screen. The last to go was Maria.
    It would be nice if the media gave less attention the polarizing far right and far left politicians and focused more of the spotlight on the vast majority of the centrist group of politicians, who are actually willing to work together and compromise. The too often ignored centrists might be our best chance to lead the country on behalf of the vast majority of the citizens of our country.
    Hard to sell advertising under that news model, however.

  11. It’s funny, too. I still have Sorkin’s number (or one of them, anyway) stored in my phone contacts. Not that we were ever friends — we weren’t. But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, he was trying to get a quote out of me for a story and let me tell you something: He’s persistent. So I had to store him as a contact to make sure I didn’t accidentally answer the phone.

    I should have called him like he used to call me to get a quote for this article. hahaha.

    1. Yeah, if you two connect, ask him for all of us subscribers here, ask him if he can get a guest to call out the germ theory of disease as faulty science and on a live broadcast.

  12. We need to invent a new figure of speech that refers to when an article just nails it in all manner of comparisons and leaves readers shaking their heads on just how good the writing is, how the truth is presented in a form so concise. Something akin to “mic drop” but without a boasting and sense of triumph.

    An excellent article, H. Thank you.

  13. You know I saw that clip yesterday and could not believe it. Not sure Sorkin was part of a Kabuki play as you suggest. Your comment is so relevant though. The American public does not read about current events for the most part- and get their information from a lot of short supposedly easy to digest bits. The problem is most problems have complexity. Sometimes solutions can be simple (example wear a mask- social distance- avoid crowds) but the discussion around these issues mostly need context- so should never be sound bites. A sign of the success of a society is how it treats the most vulnerable- by that measure the US is close to or has failed.

  14. These are the sort of normalized, almost yawn-worthy, shouting matches that pass for public discourse these days. Everything has become so debased. Animating it is an irredeemably corrupt technocracy that has proven itself incapable of solving real world problems, while profiting from the suffocating atmosphere it creates. Simply put, something has to resolve these tensions. The beast is awakening. Look at what is happening in India right now – 250 million farmers storming the capital city (and being blockaded) to push back against sweeping bureaucratic laws being rushed down their throats. The single largest protest movement in history. We may very well see the same in the US and around the world very soon, a second act to the historic protests of 2020.

  15. In February I have predicted that about 15 millions americans will get coronavirus in 2020. Looks like this prediction came pretty close, though I underestimated mortality.
    The good news is this wave is most likely the last one, and it will end in February-March. But we have to make it until March.

  16. I blame (in part) the 24/7 news cycle. There isn’t quite enough news to populate a 24/7 news network so they got to make shit up.

    OTOH, with all that time in their hands, they don’t manage to produce deep dives, akin to, say, John Oliver show or Joe Rogan podcasts (some of them at least). It’s weird.

    But, just as we get the politicians we deserve, we get the TV networks we deserve.

    Question mark for the oldsters among us : how did things feel in the 70s when protests led to domestic terrorist attacks that seemed more regular than the ones we have now? When the Vietnam protests etc. seem quite pregnant with revolutionary potential?

    And… how did it all peter out without any real change? Or did people think change occured? Will today solve itself the same way (lots of noise but no changes – to my appreciation; but see above, how did the players back then feel about it?) or will it morph into something serious (Germany circa 1933)? I put the odds of meaningful, intelligent, far ranging reforms at… I don’t know. Small.

    1. It will be interesting to see what changes moving forward. Unlike the 1970s, we now have a limited ability to kick the consequences of climate change down the road. The repercussions from that alone are myriad.

      In one rural California community – that has been traditionally poor and on the red team – the current conversation revolves around how the local electric utility keeps shutting off power to prevent fires. It is a desert community near a forest and the wildfires have been growing in ferocity with every passing year.

      Some residents calmly advocate for personal generators, while others express outrage at the unfairness of losing $hundreds of groceries with each shut off and remark that they moved to a inexpensive place because they don’t have the resources to buy extra food or generators.

      Meanwhile, each year the insurance companies refuse to insure larger and larger swaths of land for fire, and the state government has to step in.

      How many local battles, that resulted from larger government inaction, will be fought over the next years and will change happen that benefits the majority of people — or will it just benefit those who profit from the necessary adaptations — like generator, air and water purifier companies?

      Again, climate change is just one thing that can’t be ignored for long. I doubt that after a year of such serious engagement with civics, the whole thing will calm down without change.

      1. Ah, well. I didn’t even think about climate change. On this, my pov is that either sciences save our collective butts or we are going to have to adapt to whatever will be left of the planet. I put odds of willingly lowering our consumption and changing our lifestyles at 0%.

    2. Fredm421:

      You ask a complex question with no simple answers. Apart from Weather Underground and Black Panthers, there were few armed confrontations in the late 60-s or 70’s. Yes, there were spontaneous riots (Watts, after MLK and RFK murders) but these were not “movements” like organized demonstrations against the Viet Nam war and racism or for women’s rights. Several confrontations were between demonstrators and cops (e.g. Columbia U) but weapons were not involved – just brutal billy clubs.

      Did “players” feel vindicated by their actions? Well, the US did leave Viet Nam, but any perceived success of demonstrations may have merely been coincidental to the military debacle that drove us out. Women’s rights gained much ground, slowly. Yet racism continues…

      (I was not part of any demonstrations, being too busy working or too stoned with musician friends to bother. We just talked and theorized.)

      Today’s confrontations seem to me much more dangerous because so many angry, under-educated and frightened people have joined groups that wear camo gear and arm themselves with multiple guns. They feed each other’s fears through online conspiracy theories generated through wacko media outlets. Probably thousands of more armed folks who consider liberal elites as evil are in a new kind of silent majority, who could be provoked to join their para-military counterparts under the “right” circumstances or by a flame-throwing demagogue leader.

      Like you, I have little faith it will turn out well. The only hope is for each individual to generate compassion while maintaining “calm abiding” as the Buddhist masters suggest.

      1. Right. As mentioned below, maybe Western European impressions of that time colored my expectations for violence in the USA?

        But, to me, it’s interesting how little progress was effectively made. Racism… So, sure, the Civil Right Act and desegregation and the end of (official) redlining etc. are hard won victories. But, if you look at wealth and income and social stratification, it’s amazing how little impact those things had.

        And, more generally, the youth of the 60s was also agitating for a different economic model. Or at least a more imaginative redistribution of wealth. None of that panned out. On the contrary, those 60s guys had no idea how good they had it, as we, their kids (I’m a Gen Z) found out with the Reagan/Thatcher conservative counter-revolution…

    3. “how did things feel in the 70s when protests led to domestic terrorist attacks that seemed more regular than the ones we have now”

      Huh? Oh yeah, the Weather Underground blew up a courthouse in Newbury, Massachusetts. ! Well, they tried to, in that case.

      Speaking from experience as a demonstrator in the late 60s, the police were often vile. But the most violence came from tight wing “Love It or Leave It” goons, often from (HIGHLY unionized) construction sites. They were given the OK to go get ’em.

      That said, the cultural impact from the 60’s was hugely impactful, I still recall waiting for my dad spilling off of the commuter train in in our ultra-wealthy suburb in the early 60s. Every single man was dressed the same in their regimental corporate uniforms. Right down to gray flannel in the winter and seersuckers and straw boaters in the summer.

      Total conformity.

  17. Thank you, Heisenberg. I am a child of the fifties and sixties, so I am addicted to having background noise in the morning as I prep for work. Friday, I had CNBC on in the background, and was mildly interested in the Jobs number. The discourse of the corporate guests was predictable, lawyer-vetted econobabble, but after Santelli’s first comments my ears picked. Maybe we’ll get some real discourse, I thought. How disappointing it quickly
    became. I wondered if anyone would find it as offensive as I did. Fox is worse than CNBC, and Bloomberg TV is, politely put — dry. Maybe should try out the audio feed of barstool sports.

    If Michael Bloomberg wanted to generate another billion or two, perhaps his company would start offering a “home gamer” version of Bloomberg terminals. Put an oldies radio channel on for the background noise, and it might make for morning business news nirvana.

  18. Kent State was in fact the end of the youth movement, when we realized that the government would rather kill us than change anything that mattered to them.

  19. One thing I am totally grateful for was the music. As another child who remembers when Ed Sullivan first had Elvis on and so many other ‘Greats’ I loved the music. I feel sorry for kids these days.
    Question… If there are more Republicans running around refusing to wear masks and socially distance…has anyone looked to see if more of them are dying from Covid?? They can’t all be given the royal treatment like the Trumps and Rudi.

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