Why Are Comedians Providing The Most Relevant Journalism?

We’re in the final stretch of a long presidential campaign, which is a watershed election for many reasons. The more obvious having to do with the race and gender of the candidates. However, there are lesser ones which are important as well. One aspect that people tend not to think as deeply about is the fact that we are increasing getting the most insightful political commentary from comedians like John Stewart of the Daily Show, David Letterman, and Tina Fey and the other cast members of Saturday Night Live. This observation is not my own, Charles Kaiser of Full Court Press, among others, have long championed Stewart and his staff writers for their dead-on political analysis.

With the country spending $10 billion a month on the war in Iraq, US banks struggling to survive and the world slipping in global recession, the increasingly ugly political presidential race blares onwards towards November 4th. This moment should be the time for journalists to step up and make sense of the world. And yet they seem two steps behind the joke makers. As long running dailies are turning weekly, traditional news outlets such as print newspapers, need to be making themselves more relevant, not less.

John Stewart’s interview with Peggy Noonan a few weeks ago was telling.  In the interview, Stewart at one point, gives an impassioned plea to his guest on how the politicians can get away with rhetoric which treats the public like children. The reason of course is that the people as well as journalists allow it to happen. (It’s the same reason for why the debate have been reduced to 90 second sound bite speaks which are so tightly controlled, that nothing meaningful is said.) It was so rare to as any journalist or tv personality show that he really cares about the country’s well being, rather an partisanship or sidestepping responsibility in the name of staying objective.

Similarly, the McCain / Letterman bro-mance turning sour was amusing to watch from start to conclusion. What does Letterman have to lose by a continuing barrage of criticism after being personally lied to by McCain on a phone call saying that he has to go to Washington to deal with the financial meltdown. Letterman’s cut to McCain getting make up with Katie Couric, during the taping of Letterman’s show he skipped was priceless. Further, in McCain’s kiss and make up appearance (which reeked of PR control,) Letterman pursued him on the qualifications of Palin and if he really thought Obama was a terrorist, in a way that journalist rarely dare to attempt. McCain tried to side stepped the questions, with rhetoric of “many words are said in politics.”

I can’t help but wonder if one of the main problems is that the journalists fear criticizing and questioning politicians, will result in losing access to their sources. Just like fashion writers who shred shows and don’t get invited the next season. This fear may make short term sense, but journalists will lose out in the long term. Stewart, often uses his television home of Comedy Central, the airer of South Park, as cover for expressing honest political views. “I can say whatever I want, because I follow potty mouthed cartoon boys!”  Actually he can say what he wants because he gets a lot of viewers online and offline, people blog about his segments, and lots of people of all ages do consider the Daily Show as an important source of political analysis. For this reason, he knows he can dig and deconstruction of McCain, as well as, Obama, because he knows that politicians realize his influence. Especially because the Daily Show will go on with or without them. The show doesn’t need direct access, so they don’t worry about being blacklisted.

Traditional journalism, especially newspapers and magazines are in trouble, and I’m really surprised by the response when there is so much to talk about. I usually don’t rant like this here, so in my follow up post, I’ll offer an alternative path on how journalism can regain it’s relevance.

Links to blogs with smart things to say about journalism:

Press Think – Jay Rosen

Buzz Machine – Jeff Jarvis

Unclaimed Terrortory – Glenn Greenwald

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2 Responses to Why Are Comedians Providing The Most Relevant Journalism?

  1. Frank says:

    One huge problem here is: what can objective journalists do when one side of the campaign is utterly lacking in merit or substance? It’s just a mistake to even credit McCain with having a health care “plan” that does anything more than speed us toward “devil-take-the-hindmost” social darwinism. The proper response to the McCain plan is not some “balanced” panel of expert commentary, but laughter.

    So perhaps when the Republicans put together policies that are not laughable, “real journalists” can supplant the comedians. Until then, we’ll keep guffawing at the GOP.

  2. Michael says:

    Take one look at those Washington “banquets” where the press and the politicians all get together to celebrate themselves, and you see the real rottenness of modern journalism.

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