Thursday, September 18, 2008

Does the New York Times envy The Daily Show?

***UPDATE: Using some of the scattered ideas postulated in this post, I have an article up on NYU's blog based publication NYULocal, reproduced below:

Norman Solomon’s post “Dubious Praise for The Daily Show” (Huffington Post, Sept. 10) examines the enormous amount of love the mainstream media gives to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Referencing this NYT article, Solomon labels their “elaborate praise” as “a tacit form of convoluted self-loathing” and likens them to shackled journalists watching Superman up above. Basically, he thinks The New York Times is jealous of The Daily Show. I’m beginning to agree.

I’m sure Frank Rich wishes he could be as funny as Jon Stewart, but The New York Times doesn’t seem to praise The Daily Show’s humor as much as its ability to “speak truth to power.” Here’s Solomon’s key question: What does this admiration for The Daily Show say about how The New York Times feels about its own ability to speak truth to power? In other words, why can’t straight news coverage do that?

The main difference between The New York Times and The Daily Show is that one has the obligation to be “fair and balanced” (or at least try to be), and the other does not. Solomon’s Superman comparison gets right at this point: if conventional journalists are envious of Jon Stewart’s freedom, maybe they’re fed up with being fair and balanced.

Stewart and his staff consume the same information for their stories as other reporters. One can only assume that the blatant contradictions that Stewart highlights on his show every day are just as painfully obvious to his shackled counterparts. If I were them, I’d be sick of playing dumb.

Some broadcast journalists have already outgrown their objective shells this election season: when MSNBC’s anchors Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews tried to keep it real, they were banned from anchoring the presidential campaign coverage. Now they’ve been relegated to being “commentators.”

But for a print journalist, there’s no such thing as going off script. Are broadcast/online journalists the wild-children and print the suck-ups? Solomon describes The New York Times as a “circumscribed” and “lumbering” institution, too heavy to orchestrate an agile critical assault like The Daily Show, almost as if it’s weighed down by its own brand name.

Solomon’s conclusion regarding the media? “That’s the way it goes in medialand. What isn’t conspicuous is apt to be insidious.” That’s smart-talk for, “if it ain’t obvious, it’s probably bad for you.”


Abe said...

A major part of the reason that Stewart is successful is that he's able to present news with a comedic twist. He's not trying to be taken seriously, but the sad fact is that his reporting is often more accurate and open-minded than the news itself. I'll mention the oft-cited example of his appearance on Crossfire which arguably led to the cancellation of the show.

Stewart's point, which is relevant for this discussion, was that "Crossfire" sets out a specific agenda to tackle its guests based on their predisposed beliefs. Stewart's show is perhaps more acceptable because he pokes fun at everybody. Obviously Stewart and the entire "Daily Show" team are steadfast liberals (watch "Indecision 2004" and see just how desperate and certain they are that Bush won't win again), but everything is good fun. He doesn't purport to be reporting the news; his show airs on Comedy Central.

Another reason why Stewart might be less dangerous than other commentators: we've discussed the idea that the show "30 Rock," which showcases General Electric as a manipulative corporation out to control the airwaves and thoughts of its viewers, is more permissible because if you show it in a funny way, it's as if it's been discarded. NBC, which is owned by GE, is airing "30 Rock," so how could this possibly be true in real life? I'm not so sure this is the case with Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show," but it's certainly something worth considering.

Abe said...

As a refresher, do check out Stewart's appearance on "Crossfire" on YouTube. He addresses all these issues extensively.

M. Dery said...

Abe makes some intriguing points. Does Stewart's social role as a comedian in some way de-fang him, i.e., make the politicians he skewers feel as if he's...just kidding, and therefore not a genuine threat in the way that a pit-bull investigative reporter presumably would be? Also, Abe, if you're analogizing Stewart's show to 30 ROCK's tongue-in-cheek riff on GE, what, exactly, would the parallel be? Who owns Comedy Central? Does Stewart ever mock his corporate master(s) outright? If so, how pointedly does he mock them? Or is it just the usual playful ribbing, in the Letterman-mocks-GE mode---harmless japes that never go for the jugular, exposing corporate wrongdoing in a way that would really hurt the company's stock valuation? One might argue that such ribbing serves two purposes, reaffirming the comedian's "edginess" even as it makes his corporate master look like a good sport for laughing along with the jester's mockery (a shrewd P.R. strategy, as you point out, since it deflects REAL critiques of its corporate conduct).
Anyway, on to Will's post. Scattered thoughts, hanging questions:
1. How "brutally honest" IS The Daily Show, really? Sure, the monologues take no prisoners, but every time I watch Stewart's interviews, I cringe at his squirmy, fanboyish vibe, especially in the presence of babe-licious starlets. Some media critics have suggested that an appearance on The Daily Show, running the gauntlet of Stewart's barbs good-naturedly, actually inoculates right-wingers and neocons against truly substantive criticism, burning their public images as self-deprecating nice guys, able to take a joke. Witness Stewart's softball treatment of William Kristol, for example.
2. Also. WHY "can’t straight news coverage do" what Stewart does? Isn't it because of the persistence of the objectivity doctrine? And the pernicious effects of the right-wing charge that the newsmedia exhibit liberal bias, a charge that arguably has inspired them to overcompensate, rightward, genuflecting before power?
3. "They’re envious of Jon Stewart’s freedom, so maybe being fair and balanced has turned into their reluctant obligation." But the objectivity doctrine predates The Daily Show by many decades. Didn't spring from Pulitzer's brow, in the age of yellow journalism? You make it sound like a reaction to Stewart.
4. As for Olbermann, wasn't he sacked not for his watchdog tenacity but for his ideological biases, fine on a political talkshow, but less fine on a news show? What role SHOULD objectivity play, if any? Can we be balanced without being objective? Does the British press (say, The Guardian) offer a model of fair but ideologically inflected newscoverage? Food for thought...