09/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Comedy Central Saves America with Intelligent Satire

Last night, I did something that was both enjoyable and difficult: I watched Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. Mr. Moyers is not afraid to call out both the hysterical right wing and their Astroturfing zealots for the way that are using their First Amendment Rights to stamp out other voices. He's also not afraid to call to carpet the mainstream television media -- from Fox News to MSNBC -- for obsessively covering the town hall bullying in a way that makes it seems like a majority of Americans oppose healthcare reform, which is actually not the case.

But the reality is that watching Mr. Moyers and his guests Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation speak in an eloquent and informed manner is far less entertaining than watching Glenn Beck weep, Rush Limbaugh bloviate, Newt Gingrich thunder or the crew of Morning Joe posit conspiracies. Moyers and his guests care more about being thoughtful and informed than amusing; and so, they are less fun to watch. Meanwhile, the bombastic voices of the right are reliably shocking, titillating and sensational: they are entertainers of the highest order. But not journalists.

Fortunately, we have an antidote in the form of Comedy Central, which brings us The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert pass themselves off as comedians, but they are really the most influential satirists of the day: they inform and illuminate through ridicule. (A good deal of credit goes to their very clever writers.) Certainly you laugh, but what you laugh at is also worthy of serious thought.

This past week, I was particularly impressed at the way both shows mocked the "death panel" fantasy, thereby helping to defang a fraudulent and distracting scare tactic. The Daily Show did a brilliant job showing Glen Beck rant both for and against healthcare system. It's a hilarious illustration of diametrically opposed demagoguery from the same mouth. Using a very different tactic, Colbert debated himself to illustrate just how farcical extremists on both sides of the health care debate really sound.

Without question, it would be preferable if all Americans had the time to make the substantial effort to get the facts directly. That's not practical: most of us simply lack the time. That's why good satire is so important. It's a quick and painless way to draw attention to issues that have crossed from the merely sublime to the truly ridiculous. That's not the same thing as good journalism, but it's a public service nevertheless.