YOUR MOMENT OF ZEN
by Steve Young
As Walter Cronkite - the last "most trusted newscaster" - passed on to that great newsroom in the sky, joining the other most trusted newscaster - Edward R. Murrow, who coincidentally recruited Cronkite to CBS - Time Magazine released a poll naming Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central's Daily Show, America's most trusted newscaster.
In a New York Times oped, Frank Rich opted that Stewart was not one properly positioned to hold that title.
How many of those with similarly exalted perches in the news media today -- and those perches, however diminished, still do exist in the multichannel digital age -- will speak truth to power when the country is on the line? This journalistic responsibility cannot be outsourced to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart.
But Rich's belief is embedded in what used to be, not with what newscasting has morphed into; media that readily pushes aside integrity for the sake of a scoop or an extra rating point.
See: NBC and Meet The Press's David Gregory thirsting for a Mark Sanford-get so much that he told the Argentinian skirt-chasing governor that "Meet the Press allows you to frame the conversation how you really want to."
See: CNN's Lou Dobbs coddling up to Obama birther conspirators and his boss, CNN President, Lou Klein calling the story "legitimate."
See: Fox News' - um, just see Fox News.
That Stewart's act is played for laughs doesn't mean that it cannot provide accuracy. Satire done well is meant to expose the truth beneath the pomposity. But with it does comes a certain accountability that Rich fails to recognize.
(Warning: Humongous Name Drop Ahead) Penny Marshall once told me, "Satire scares me." It should. Exposing hypocrisy carries with it enormous responsibility. It's like admitting to someone else that we need to lose weight. We're on record. Now if we don't do something about it, we can't ever see that "someone else" ever again until we actually lose weight, because, if we didn't, it would expose ourselves as hypocrites.
Once Gregory told Sanford that he'd allow him to "frame the conversation" his and Meet The Press's bona fides went into integrity's circular filing bin.
More than once Stewart has defined The Daily Show as a "fake news oganization." That honesty in itself places him leaps and bounds ahead of so-called serious news hawkers like Bill O'Reilly who sees himself as a truth-teller for the Folks. But while Stewart spins the news for laughs, O'Reilly spins it for partiality. Stewart's spin reveals the king's own nakedness. O'Reilly's dresses the king the way he wants you to see him. Which one do you think is playing the integrity card?
At it's best, it's getting to get your news guest to tell it like it is, even when he doesn't realize he has.
This past week, Jon Stewart debated health insurance with Weekly Standard editor and Fox News contributor, Bill Kristol. Serious news pundit and conservative maven Kristol voiced his severe lack of trust in any government run health plan. The comic Stewart inquired as to the quality of our military health plan, which Kristol believed to be splendid and well-deserved. With a comic gotcha twinkle in his eye and perfect timing, Stewart pointed out that the military medical plan was government run. The next two minutes offered a mumbling Kristol clumsily trying to crawl out of the hole he had just dug.
Truth to power? How about getting the truth from power.
Jon got laughs, Bill his comeuppance, and the audience...the truth. Not only could a government run health plan work, Kristol admitted that it already does.
Make no mistake, Stewart's game is to bring laughter to the news, much of which doesn't necessitate changing a single word or action offered by the newsmakers themselves. Take Sarah Palin...please. Vice President Biden provides that verbatim humor isn't partisan.
As with solid reporting, satire not only begets a heart and soul cleansing for the public, but it also delivers a pungent warning to the powerful who are determined to continue a masquerade. Trust begets trust. And in real news or fake, trust comes out of respect for the audience and their intelligence.
News as entertainment is a post-Cronkite development, still in its babbling, learning-to-walk stage. Satire as a truth-revealer is as old as Pan. Is it any wonder that it is that a satirist might already know more about how to gain the trust of an audience? Just because one does it with laughs and another with reporting doesn't necessarily make the result any less substantial or credible.
Cronkite ended his newscast with, "And that's the way it is."
At the end of every Daily Show, Stewart introduces "Your moment of Zen," wherein an actual clip of some newsmaker making a fool of themselves is provided, sans the necessity of comment by Stewart.
In both cases we have been trusted with the truth, not a slogan, that we are left to judge ourselves.
Award-winning TV writer Steve Young is author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful" and blogs at steveyoungonpolitics.com