Friday, March 13, 2009
Ignore the issue (because, really, who disagrees that Mad Money and 95% of all CNBC financial advice is pure farce) and ignore the question of who won (again, that's like calling a winner at Little Big Horn). Focus instead on the tectonic paradigm shift that took place during the slightly publicized interview between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer last night.
It wasn't Frost/Nixon. Come to think of it, Frost/Nixon probably wasn't Frost/Nixon. But last night, Jim Cramer had to stop acting like a mad genius because Jon Stewart stopped acting like he was a comedian. It may have been the only real interview I've ever seen on TV (the kind Murphy Brown used to conduct in the land of let's pretend).
There was Stewart, skewering Cramer for impersonating a human being and masquerading as a dispenser of worthy advice. He challenged the raving bald man and his entire network to rise to their true responsibility: reporting the markets and scrutinizing the financial sector to uphold a fair standard of accountability. Stewart didn't make the connection completely, but when Cramer referenced the inadequacy of "the regulators," the Daily Show anchor quickly retorted that it's the job of the media to expose rather than enable the crooks who skirt the shoddy surveillance of the SEC. I just want to take that a step further with this first puzzle piece:
If the media were doing their job of informing the American people and exposing corruption in all its forms, we wouldn't be relying on the government to impose new regulations and bail out the economy from the ruins of Wall Street's undeterred transgressions. That's just one puzzle piece, so let's not jump to conclusions quite yet.
The hypocrisy of Cramer is self-evident. But I hope we don't lose the hypocrisy of Jon Stewart. True, as he said in the interview, The Daily Show labels itself as snake oil while CNBC purports to be a source of true remedies. But does being upfront about prioritizing entertainment above integrity really justify the decision? If so, a lot of people owe Vince McMahon a big apology, because Stewart and Colbert are to news what the WWE is to sports. We know they're all entertainers (yet unquestionably good at what they do) appealing to niche fans who would rather be entertained than suffer through the ennui of the real thing.
And there's my problem with Stewart and Colbert: by acknowledging their own facade, they unintentionally give undue credence to the notion that the other guys are legit. Reality showed us that pro wrestlers weren't the only ones on steroids—real athletes were fake, too. And now, just maybe, it's starting to dawn on the American public that the real journalists are faking it as well.
One reason I love Stewart and company is the adversarial nature they bring to the table. They impeach with impunity. They are equal-opportunity satirists. They are filling a void left by so-called credible news outlets who tiptoe around controversy, refuse to press the issues, and allow special-interest groups to forge fake news in respected publications. But by casting themselves as comedians, shows like Colbert Report perpetuate the notion that challenging the corrupt, exposing the liars, and mocking the incompetent are not legitimate journalistic tactics. Mainstream news outlets have this bizarre habit of treating everyone with respect and tact, and I wish they'd drop it already.
Because if it's only the entertainers—the self-acknowledged (Stewart, Colbert), the closet cases (O'Reilly, Limbaugh), and the bloggers (John Peter Zenger they are not)—who actually dig their claws into the public evils, then the worst and most secretive criminals of society will continue to roam freely with our money, our opinions, and our pride in tow. So here's the second piece of this puzzle (and don't worry, it's not a very large puzzle):
If pseudo-journalistic entertainers took themselves more seriously (I'm looking at you, Jon) and approached their content honestly (Rush, come on), their powers could be used for the good of journalism and society as a whole.
Which brings me to the final puzzle piece: society. Me. You. All your friends on facebook. The reason CNBC doles out fake financial news whilst flinging farm animals and spraying spittle, the reason The Daily Show appears on Comedy Central instead of CNN, and the reason Rush Limbaugh speaks unwaveringly (and clownishly) for the right no matter how wrong it may be is the simple, inevitable fact that collectively we binge on entertainment. We flee anything that challenges us to think or re-evaluate our opinions. We want so desperately not to be wrong that we choose only those options that reinforce our opinions or free us from having to form them.
As a result, when mainstream news gets controversial, the phones start ringing (future boycotter on line 1) and the sponsors start pulling their money away (former customer on line 2). Why don't the phone lines light up when meaningless, inconsequential news wastes our air space? Why do we protest when programming offends but not when it simply sucks? Where are the angry calls from viewers who are offended by lazy, substance-free reporting? You, my friend, are the final puzzle piece. Let's face it, we got conned into viewing a piece of accidentally real news. It's rare that such a thing would come into existence, let alone that millions of people would wind up seeing it. But now that we have, is there any chance we might actually develop a taste for it?
If media end-users like you and me would, en masse, start demanding honest journalism and serious investigation, media outlets would start providing it and the criminals of this world would eventually be exposed and government based on letting the free market model work itself out might actually, you know . . . work. But a government for the people, by the people, and of the people will never work well within a free market if all the people collaboratively agree to suck in our own special way.