The Daily Show Is Not The Earnest Show, And That’s Good For America
I finally got around to reading Steve Almond’s essay in The Baffler attacking Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and I understand why everyone got so upset: He’s really amazingly wrong. What Almond wants from Stewart and Colbert is something completely different from the TV programs they produce. He wants The Earnest Show, where everyone is earnest as hell about the corporations man and all the bad stuff they do and stuff. Keeping it on the real!
For many reasons, this is a bad idea. Most importantly for the world of entertainment — the world The Daily Show and Colbert Report inhabit — it is a boring prospect. There is this prevailing attitude among the hardest of the hardcore, on both the left and right, that what the public needs to finally come on board is a good old intellectual sledgehammer to the head. The thought process behind this poorly conceived notion is that the corporate media, always looking out for its own special interests, is silencing this really Important Voice Outside The Consensus. For these kinds of folks the reason their heroes like Chomsky or Ron Paul are effectively cut off from the mainstream is some kind of vast conspiracy.
In reality it is because these people and the way they communicate their ideas (speaking broadly) is ratings poison. Nobody wants to watch it. There is a program out there that is sort of the ideal of this model. It’s called Democracy Now. Nobody watches it. It isn’t because some nefarious executive decided that it should be frozen out of the mainstream, it’s just because nobody wants their news/information presented that way. If people wanted dry, information heavy news presentations from committed ideologues, C-SPAN would be a ratings juggernaut. It isn’t!
This isn’t to say hard, important news can’t be done in a compelling fashion. Tune in to PBS’ Frontline some time. They get the job done. As does 60 Minutes, who’s ratings often reaffirm my belief in mankind.
By comparison, Stewart and Colbert have been effective not because they exist on a “plantation” as the author derisively describes it, but because they are not programs designed to dictate the principles of the hard left. They are, in fact, comedic entertainment programs. Both shows work because they live by the principle of comedy first, ideological point second. If you reverse the scenario you get horrible things like Fox News’ Half Hour News Hour which lasted about thirty seconds because even a conservative can smell a bad comedy headed his way.
It is why I have often defended The Daily Show against liberals who get their noses bent out of shape if Jon Stewart makes a joke at the expense of someone on the left. He’s running a comedy show, not the Democratic National Committee. His show is more honest when, if given low-hanging fruit from the left, he’s got an obligation as a comedian to swing for it.
If you look at the two most successful liberal-leaning news programs of the last decade — MSNBC’s Countdown and The Rachel Maddow Show — they both excelled because they are/aren’t The Dour Newshour. Even when tackling vitally important issues, Rachel Maddow understands that if she doesn’t entertain her audience the information evaporates. It works because it isn’t a boring lecture.
I have often argued that if Fox News discovered that they could sell liberalism they same way they do conservatism — loud and sexy and bite-sized — they’d flip in a minute, especially if it meant making more money.
In my experience, liberals especially, hate to think that news is somehow tainted by entertainment. But if you look at American history, it is when news has some element of the dramatic that social progress tends to happen. Food safety didn’t come about because of a dry government report, but rather was aided by the dramatic work of Upton Sinclair. America didn’t tip in favor of civil rights because of a dry newspaper story about the bus boycott, but rather it was helped along by dramatic — nearly cinematic — imagery of southern police brutality to black citizens. We’ve always needed the lure of entertainment to spur us into action on the news. This idea that some “objective” report in the New York Times will be a catalyst for change is a fool-headed notion of a stereotypical eggheaded academic who doesn’t inhabit the real world.
The author really goes off the rails when he insists that Stewart and Colbert (to a lesser extent) helped to dissuade those against the Iraq War. In fact, I would cite Stewart, along with Olbermann, for being key media voices as the rest of the press went along with the war drums. Stewart’s “Mess-O-Potamia” was out there ridiculing the warmongers at the same time the media was still overly impressed by some school we had built overseas, never mind the missing WMD and the carnage. Stewart helped to cement the image of the war party and their media enablers as ludicrous bunglers who should never be entrusted with our national security.
The author further undermines his central thesis by citing South Park as somehow being better at standing up to the imagined corporate overlord and being more real, man. Yet that show regularly espouses the idea that both sides of the political spectrum are equally absurd. I love their work, but at best South Park seems to espouse a sort of libertarian nihilism about everything. It’s funny as hell but I wouldn’t count it as upsetting the apple cart of conventional wisdom.
He attacks the Rally To Preserve Sanity for not getting people to do, well, something man. But does anyone seriously think the rally would have attracted that many people (including myself) if it were just some liberals getting liberals together to vote for liberals? I don’t think so. Stewart and Colbert work because they aren’t simply spokesmen for the Democratic Party or even liberalism in general. If somebody wants a stale party line they can simply turn on Sean Hannity.
The two examples the author gives as alternatives to Stewart/Colbert are Bill Hicks and Bill Maher. Now, while I may agree with both of those guys on a pretty regular basis (Hicks more than Maher, but whatever), it’s a perfect example of ineffectiveness on parade. Stewart turned The Daily Show from a more standard issue news as comedy show into one with an ideology, which spun off into The Colbert Report. Both of these shows have an impact on the American political dialogue far outstripping their actual cable news audiences. Their riffs emanate out on to the web and into our lives.
By contrast, Hicks and Maher speak to the choir. Sure, that choir will be enraptured and vigorously nod their heads in agreement (something Maher used to disdain), but it won’t go anywhere. It won’t have any resonance. Bill Hicks made some great insights, but he had to die too young for them to escape past a relatively small audience who agreed with him anyways.
So I guess the argument is, as always, purity over effectiveness. I believe in political actions that don’t just stimulate the people I already agree with. I don’t see a lot of utility in simply appealing to an “amen” chorus and excoriating people outside of the inner circle for their supposed failure to “get it.”
Instead I think that the path to progress comes from a mainstream approach, focused on entertaining people with the hope that they could learn something or change their minds in the process. I don’t care if the vehicle for doing so isn’t 100% pure. If it works, if it is effective, it is a far better investment than simply being earnest for the sake of being earnest.