When I was young, back before the Punic Wars, there was a two-part ritual my father observed every night. He came home from work; he sat down at the dinner table; he picked up the newspaper and read it from front to back, never putting it down until he was finished. He would fold it in such a way that he could hold it in one hand and manage to eat at the same time. There was never much scintillating dinner conversation in my house. Part two of the ritual came at 11 pm when, no matter what, he would watch the local news (15 minutes) followed by the network news (15 minutes), followed by Jack Paar (and later Johnny Carson).
We had one newspaper in town. We got five TV channels – and they covered the three major networks. We subscribed to one magazine: “Life.” That, plus the local radio stations, constituted the entirety of our sources of knowledge about what was happening in the world. We were well-informed. We weren’t hooked into a small slice of American media. We had it all. That was it. Well, there were other magazines, but “Life” had pretty pictures. No matter where you lived in this country, that was it. And if you had access to it, you had the same understanding of news events as everyone else.
Compared to the previous decade, the war years, news travelled fast. The wire services made it possible for the large network staffs of journalists to get stories out from anywhere in the world the same day.
Today’s media makes all of that seems like a Pony Express rider on a snail. Today I get hundreds of TV channels, have access to thousands of other news sources and newspapers over the internet, and I can still see some of those old networks news shows on YouTube from my desk chair. No two people have to have the same sources for all their news. So, given this explosion in media sources in the past 60 years, why do so many people in this country think President Obama is a Muslim?
We have numbers of 24-hour-news stations, media figures have become celebrities with millions of twitter followers, and the entire written history of the human race is more accessible than at any time before. So how is it that there are still people (in this country!) who believe moon landing was a hoax?
Apparently, there is some sort of problem with the definition of the word “fact.” No, actually it’s more that “facts” just aren’t important any more. We don’t trust facts. The “facts” we get here aren’t the same as the “facts” we get there. OK, so it’s a problem with the definition. Or maybe we just don’t trust anyone, period.
When Walter Cronkite signed off his CBS news show with “And that’s the way it is, (insert day and date here)” no one said, “bullshit!” Walter Cronkite was known as “the most trusted man in America” because when he finished telling you something, you could believe it. He and his staff had researched it, vetted the hell out of it, boiled it down to the essential “facts,” and presented it in a concise and understandable manner. It had nothing to do with anyone’s opinion. It wasn’t based on some twitter feed from an anonymous source. It was the result of journalism in its heyday.
Supposedly, after Cronkite first used his famous “And that’s the way it was” tagline he got a call from the president of CBS telling him not to use it again. He was told he couldn’t say that because, “What if we got it wrong?” But Cronkite wanted a tagline and “Good night and good luck,” was taken, (UTSD) so he insisted and prevailed. Cronkite retired in 1981 to be succeeded by Dan Rather, and died in 1992.
So who does America trust in media news today? According to a 2009 Time poll: Jon Stewart. OK. Short pause for a) the irony to sink in and b) the face palm which is required when it does. Actually, all the irony sinking and facepalming happened nearly five years ago and since that time the media, particularly the print media, has been trying to explain and analyze why a guy who hosts a fake news show on a comedy channel should rate higher in trust value than the anchors at the major networks and cable channels.
Well, here it is in a nutshell:
We don’t care about facts. There are too many facts. They make our brains hurt. We want someone to tell us what the facts mean. Then we don’t have to think… which makes our brains hurt even worse. This of course is the business of the media today. It doesn’t deal in news. It deals in news analysis. And it has for a goodly number of years.
But there’s too much news analysis. It goes on and on and when there isn’t anything important to analyze they’ll analyze Michelle’s wardrobe or make stuff up to analyze, and we get bored with it. And much of it seems to have no purpose other than to take up time on media channels created almost solely to provide a platform for it. And they don’t just analyze the news or debate the issues or explain the difficult ins and outs, they sit across shiny, prop desks and interrupt each other, trying desperately to get the last word in.
Until very recently the network news shows were losing a million viewers a year, and did for over 20 years. Some of that went to the cable news networks. Now even that is falling off as well.
Jon Stewart does not just analyze the news. “The Daily Show” analyzes the news media. It points out the media’s hypocrisy along with that of the politicians the media covers and he’s funny, and he says “fuck” a lot. What’s not to like? Especially if you’re under thirty and still haven’t gotten over the fact you can swear now.
And we love seeing hypocrisy unmasked.
“Today Senator Leghorn announced his enthusiastic support for another stupid idea from some ridiculous brain trust.” Roll tape of Senator Leghorn extolling the virtues of said stupid idea.
“When asked why he was supporting this stupid idea today when last week he claimed this was the worst idea since snot-flavored bubblegum, Senator Leghorn denied that he had ever made such a statement. Really?” Roll tape of Senator Leghorn waving his arms and stating quite clearly that this was the stupidest idea since snot-flavored bubblegum.
Camera pulls in for close-up of smirk on Stewart’s face. We love this shit. And nobody else does this, at least not every night. And nobody else does it as well. Why wouldn’t you trust this guy? He’s showing you the truth. And he doesn’t seem to care which party the bozos on the bus are in.
Because he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t have to be fair and balanced. He’s a comedian, not a news analyst. He can say whatever the hell he wants to and so long as you laugh and his ratings are good, he’s golden.
The whole fair and balanced thing, aside from being a source of never-ending amusement when applied to Fox News, is partially responsible for putting the media in its present situation. As the president of CBS said to Cronkite, “What if we got it wrong?” That would be…um…bad. So the answer they came up with was the fair and balanced doctrine. If they allow someone to say that something is the worst idea since snot-flavored bubblegum, it has to be followed by someone who says that it’s the best idea since grape-flavored KY Jelly. Bases covered.
But which is the viewer supposed to believe? Bases (read asses) may be covered, but brains are hurting out there. Oh my God, I have to think?
In 1951 no less a journalistic icon than Edward R Murrow (the man who hired Walter Cronkite at CBS) moved his popular “Hear it Now” radio program to television under the new name “See it Now” on CBS. The show may be best remembered for Murrow’s opposition to the ideas of Senator Joseph McCarthy. By 1958 Murrow told the chairman of CBS that he could no longer continue to do the show if the network insisted on providing equal time to those who felt wronged by its content.
Jon Stewart is not fair and balanced. You don’t really need to bring on an opposing viewpoint when you can show politicians opposing their own viewpoint. You don’t need to allow another network the opportunity to deny that they lied on air when you can show them lying on air. Sure we trust Jon Stewart.
But an interesting side effect of being the most trusted man in the “news business” is that, like it or not, you are in the news business. You may be in the comedy business, but you are very definitely in the news business as well.
Nowhere was this clearer than when Stewart appeared on CNN’s “Crossfire.” Tucker Carlson apparently expected Stewart to be funny. When Stewart refused to be Carlson’s “monkey,” Carlson accused him of asking softball questions to John Kerry. The irony of this did not escape Stewart who pointed out that his fake news show was preceded by puppets who make prank phone calls. But there it was: A supposedly legitimate “news commentary” show accusing a fake news, comedy enterprise of not living up to journalistic standards. I, for one, thought it was hilarious.
Of course the famous upshot of that show is that “Crossfire” was cancelled, Stewart’s criticisms of it were acknowledged as accurate by the president of CNN when he did that, and Tucker Carlson, after a brief sojourn at MSNBC is now a blogger and Fox News consultant. Not a bad win for a guy who followed puppets making crank calls.
What Stewart actually said, and what the president of CNN was referring to was that “ranting partisan political shows” were hurting America. And they still are. Hurting America and hurting the media’s place in it.
But there is another little gem lurking in that “Crossfire” exchange. At one point Carlson admits, “Kerry won’t come on this show. He will come on your show.” What? Really?
And apparently a good many other people are willing to come on “The Daily Show” as well. Here’s a short list from last year: President Barak Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, President Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Russ Feingold, Grover Norquist, Madeleine Albright, Tom Coburn, Dan Rather, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Brokaw, Chris Christie, Nate Silver, Colin Powell, etc.
And, as it turns out, Stewart is a pretty good interviewer given the format and time constraints. Of course we trust this guy. He talks with everyone! And guess what else? If they’re written a book, he’s actually read it!
What Stewart set out to say on “Crossfire,” and tried, repeatedly to say was, “See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations. And we’re left out there to mow our lawns.” You have this platform, Stewart tried to explain, that you are wasting on echoing the party line on all sides. We need a media that can explain the reality of things to the country, clearly, patiently, calmly, logically.
There is precious little of that in the media today. “The Colbert Report,” produced by Stewart’s Busboy Productions did it with Super PACs, and earned a place in “The Nation” magazine as “Most Valuable Educational TV Show” for 2012. (Pause for face palm.) Otherwise, as Jon would say, not so much.
There are a few shows out there that do try to explain things to the country clearly and logically. But that requires active participation on the part of the viewer. You have to be able to spot fallacious logic when you see it and you have to be able to separate what makes no sense from what does.
So, for the most part, people watch whoever tells them what they want to hear. It doesn’t make their brains hurt as much. They think Obama is a Muslim because someone told them he was a Muslim and it was too much trouble to change the channel. He’s black, right? Ali was black, right? Ali was a Muslim, right? Why not, then? Critical thinking is not taught in our schools any longer.
They think the moon landing was a hoax because some crazy explained to them that it was (on some fair and balanced doctrine station) and learning new things is hard, so it must be so.
I have no idea whether, if he were alive today, my father would still read a newspaper from front to back. I am 80% sure that he wouldn’t have much use for the cable “news shows.” But I am 100% sure that if “The Daily Show” were on during the dinner hour, he would plop a TV on the kitchen counter and snort food out his nose in delight.
Your Humble Servant,
The Willowbrook Curmudgeon