"It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously."
- Oscar Wilde
I am inclined to wonder if there is a line somewhere in the Book of Revelation that proclaims "and a comic shall lead them." Jon Stewart has set new standards for both comedy and journalism on television. Oddly, he was originally supposed to just make us laugh on Comedy Central. He's done that, quite proficiently, but Stewart has also figured out that some jokes are sad as well as too important not to tell.
But he's not supposed to be doing the job of reporters.
TV journalists used to almost guarantee successful careers if they could go into a tape file and find a public figure on camera with a quote that contradicted something they had just said into another camera. Tape archives had made it possible for hypocrisy to succeed irony as the fuel of insightful journalism. The most famous of these was probably George H. W. B**h's (not writing that name anymore, ever) order to "Read my lips, no new taxes." And then he raised them because he had no choice and his promise was held up in his face for trying to do what was right for the country while bad for him politically.
The practice of juxtaposing sound bites or quotes all but disappeared in journalism because few reporters had the time or inclination to search for context. They just wanted the here and the now and one side shouting at the other as if life were a cable program. (Yeah, I know, it almost is.) Reporters used to brag when they accomplished such coups as finding the historic contradictory quote, and their colleagues were justifiably jealous.
Jon Stewart has brought back context to journalism by making people in our drive-by culture responsible for their words and even actions. Stewart has helped Jim Cramer of CNBC make that awkward transition from silly and self-involved to just pathetic. Cramer, who famously recommended purchasing Bear-Stearns stock prior to the firm's total collapse, is reading Mein Karl and using the strategy of attacking the messenger when the message is so devastating. On the Today Show, he tried to dismiss Stewart as an "entertainer" who runs a "variety show."
Jon Stewart, of course, is both of those things but he is also a cultural icon. His program is free to deploy approaches that mainstream journalists cannot because he labors in the vineyards of comedy. If a writer for the Wall Street Journal or even the Boston Globe had put together a piece deconstructing the fallibilities of Jim Cramer's advice they would have had great problems with publication. Lawyers would have been engaged and editors would have furrowed their brows and worried about being counter-attacked or whether CNBC's advertisers would have stayed away from the paper. Sadly, no editor or reporter would have even thought up the idea of doing an analysis of Cramer's nonsensical babblings. Stewart has no such constraints. Everything must serve the laugh. Stewart has become a kind of Murrow for the new millennium.
Nonetheless, reporters at the big TV networks and the major publications have no excuse. Minute by minute people like Jim Cramer are feeding crap into our culture and public perceptions and it has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with their egos. How is it that a comedian is the first person to hold accountable these cheerleaders who are promoting a team that has no chance to win and, in some cases, isn't even in the damned game?
Analysts doing the autopsy on newspaper reporting and the corpse of mainstream journalism are constantly lamenting the fact that so many young people and an increasing number of others are getting their news from Jon Stewart and Comedy Central. Where else is there left to look for thoughtful, analytical, and insightful analysis of the issues of our day? The yuks are just a bonus. Cable news shows can proclaim "no bias, no bull" all they want but every story is framed for a purpose, which is drama and conflict. The viewers and the readers aren't there without the dramatic tension. You might as well be watching Law and Order: Special News Unit.
Unfortunately for traditional journalism, the audience increasingly realizes that much of the material presented is manufactured controversy that requires no resolution. Stewart, though, gives us the laconic and wiseass view of the day's news and nothing he says seems contrived. Strangely, his entire broadcast is a contrivance and yet it remains the most enlightening in the spectrum of TV "news." The only thing worrisome about Stewart's ascension in American culture is that his schtick and acerbic wit might be a canary in our red, white, and blue coal mine. We've got a funny guy in charge of how we think.
Can that be good?
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