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But What If the Truth Ain't Funny?

Image by Gabriel Held

Sometime last July, when the cracks were beginning to show around Karl Rove’s role in the Valerie Plame case, I wanted an orientation and update from TV news. My first instinct, though, wasn’t to turn to CNN or NewsHour with Jim Lehrer; instead, I had a strong hunch that the issue would be covered on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And sure enough, it was. By the end of the show I’d gotten not only the video clips I’d wanted to see but enough information and editorial commentary to be on my way. Sure, some articles in the newspaper or on the internet would have provided more detailed information, but in the realm of TV, a satirical news show had more than quenched my thirst for coverage.

Amidst the ongoing crisis faced by traditional TV news, the success of the Daily Show is revealing. While Fox News has attracted Angry White Men (mainly in the Red States) who watch it incessantly in order to reinforce their biases, Jon Stewart has captured a kind of equivalent in progressives and liberals, many of which are in Blue cities and, to the delight of advertisers, are relatively young and affluent. But while the overtly ideological right co-opted the model of hard news on cable (“fair and balanced” anyone?), and CNN, MSNBC and other cable news networks have seemingly followed Fox’s lead, it’s sad and ironic, but increasingly clear, that it’s a comedy show that many of us have to turn to in order to see issues covered that we care about. In my view, this does not bode well for the future.

A Brief History of Satire

Timely satire, of course, has a long and rich history. From Aeschylus’ Lyssestrada through Shakespeare’s social mocking to Jonathan Swift’s clever critiques of the rich in “A Modest Proposal” and Thomas Nast’s cartoons that helped bring down Tammany Hall, artists and writers have used satire as a tool to make powerful statements on the current state of affairs. And satire, unlike bombast, is a form that is intrinsically critical without being sanctimonious. The Columbia Encyclopedia describes the goal of satire as “to expose foolishness in all its guises—vanity, hypocrisy, pedantry, idolatry, bigotry, sentimentality—and to effect reform through such exposure.” And this is a noble aim indeed: the impulse to criticize political institutions, elite social values, and personal foibles is no doubt essential to democracy. And it works best when it is done without overt cruelty, but instead with a sharp and succinct ability to use the words of the powerful to point out their hypocrisy.

The rise of right-wing media that began with Rush Limbaugh’s ascent during the 80s, and escalated as Fox News gained prominence in the 90s, uses many different weapons—bombast, sarcasm, “truth”—other than satire. Such sources make no secret of their conservative biases. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, mostly comes off as funny and gentle, justifying any perceived bias by saying that his show is a fake news show and at times, he somewhat disingenuously hides behind this. It’s obvious where his sympathies lie, but unlike Randi Rhodes or Al Franken on Air America, he will only hesitantly admit his liberal bias. I’m sure that this is partly due to the inherent structural bias of corporate controlled TV, and it’s partly due to his audience: progressives tend to react to a more clever take on things. But it’s still a problem: on TV, progressives get about 10 minutes per night of satirical news, while conservatives have an entire ideologically driven 24-hour channel and more.

The Daily Show as “News”

In the age of irony and electronic manipulation, the written word and “anonymous sources” don’t really cut it in terms of representing “truth.” But a good video clip where you can see words coming out of someone’s mouth usually does. And that’s where the news in the Daily Show is found. Much can be said for how satirizing conventional forms of news sharpens a viewers critical media skills. The clips are highly selective and that’s why they’re juicy; “objective” news editors wouldn’t feel comfortable selecting the same take on Bush or going back into their archive in order to find him saying something that directly contradicts what he just said. But in satire-land there is free license and it sure is refreshing. And true! Sure, it’s colored with an introduction and is out of context but the fact is that you may not have known that your president said such an outrageous thing if you watched the evening news, cable news (unless you are glued to C-SPAN) or didn’t read the last few paragraphs of a New York Times article.

The fact is that the Daily Show has found its place among venerable news sources, probably to their chagrin, even though they all claim to love it. Besides winning numerous Emmy Awards, the Daily Show was nominated for “Best Achievement in News” by the TV Critics Association along with Frontline, Nightline and 60 Minutes. The growing importance of the program is also shown by an array of important bipartisan political guests—from Hillary Clinton to Rick Santorum—whose advisors and agents have surely calculated the importance of appearing on the show or, more probably, that a good swath of the up and coming politico intelligentsia probably watches it.

It’s no surprise that the producers of the Daily Show are engaged on the same subjective news-making process that a straight news organization is as they compile lists of stories and put them in order and choose obscure video clips that are both funny and condemnatory. The best political consultants know that message much of the time is secondary to delivery and, let’s face it, cleverness and funny irony is easier to watch for most. Analysis is delivered with a cutting laugh, a ribald critique, or a winking point to hypocrisy, much of it through use of news clips. It’s not the shouting, cruel, self-satisfied, easy salve that characterizes right-wing media ascendancy, a style that has become increasingly tired.

Conclusion: But Where’s the Pathos?

But while the Daily Show and news satire that can be perceived as liberal (such as in The Onion and much of “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live) is increasingly popular, does it pose a real threat to the right-wing agenda? Other than Tucker Carlson, I’ve never heard of any right-wind pundit or Bush administration official really go after its bias. I suppose this is both its strength—always being comedy and therefore making its critics look silly for taking it seriously—and its weakness, for no one does take it seriously.

Satire can be a potent weapon—look at Michael Moore’s films—but it is only so when followed by some of gravity, of pathos. Consider Fahrenheit 9/11’s use of the theme from Rawhide while showing the Bush administration, which it then followed with a wrenching portrait of Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a killed serviceman. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Daily Show and have watched it since the beginning when the blond, tall guy hosted it. But it’s not a sufficient antidote to Fox. Sure, the landscape of media has changed and an array of internet sites, blogs, magazines and narrowcasting has allowed people to claim that “it’s all out there if you want it.” But is it really? Try to find a decent internationally oriented news program on the hundreds of channels on NYC cable. While there are a few short BBC broadcasts here and there, Newsworld International (which siphoned often fascinating news broadcasts from countries around the world) has been replaced by Al Gore’s Current TV, a “youth oriented” channel that claims to “give the viewer control” but from what I’ve seen is quite a letdown in terms of substance.

There are problems with presenting serious social and political issues as jokes. And even more problems if that’s what can be offered in mainstream media as a progressive critique. I’m sure that Jon Stewart would agree that his show shouldn’t be looked at as something to replace trenchant, investigative, and internationally oriented news. But, unfortunately, in my own cynical moments I can’t say with certainty that an abundance of such news would help the majority of Americans look in the mirror from an international perspective. We all want to be entertained and perhaps the Daily Show is on the right track. But if it’s the most progressive news show on American TV, the notion that its satire may effect any liberal change may only be another entertaining yet clever joke.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2005

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