Tara Brabazon: I’m not going to be your monkey

Satirical news programme The Daily Show does more than poke fun at the powers that be. It condemns lazy and populist broadcasting, and urges us to question what we are told and what we choose to watch – lessons that go beyond a good laugh, writes Tara Brabazon

April 22, 2009

When histories are written about the first decade of the 21st century, September 11 will be a pistol shot that started a sprint through violence, self-absorption, xenophobia, terrorism and revenge. When an opportunity for renewal emerged with the much-anticipated presidential election of Barack Obama, greed had already infiltrated and melted down the banking system.

While bloggers blogged and YouTubers uploaded, peer-to-peer platforms expressed rage at “the system” but remained part of it. When Obama used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to raise money and his profile during the campaign, the egalitarianism, communitarianism and radicalism of this supposedly participatory culture started to be seen in context. Owned and run by corporations, these portals and platforms were not outside capitalism, creating a space for revolution 2.0 – they were branded, advertised and marketed. New modes of power were initiated.

As Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais realised in their excellent book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube & the Future of American Politics, there were “new winners with new ideas and new ways of winning”. But their book did not explore the new losers and the new ways to lose.

Narrating the hypocrisy, darkness and paradox of this time is a surprising US programme on “old” media. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (broadcast in the UK on Channel 4) is a rare combination of intelligence and comedy. Using the propulsive force of silliness and righteous rage, it summons a pointed attack on religion, science, news and politics.

Broadcasting from Baudrillard’s simulacrum, television becomes more than a representation of the real. It is the real. To adapt Baudrillard’s 1991 comment about the first Gulf War, for The Daily Show George W. Bush never really happened. Philosopher Rachael Sotos dubbed this type of mock news programme “the fifth estate”.

The Daily Show offers the holy trinity of comedy: sarcasm, irony and parody. Through these modes of attack, it offers a different sort of knowledge. It holds a special position in popular culture: teaching information literacy. It shows how news channels make mistakes, poach stories and prostitute moments of tragedy.

One reason for The Daily Show’s success in popular culture is the wit of the anchor. Stewart is moving into a similar cultural role to Groucho Marx. Like Marx, he knows when to move the biting wit and precise barbs from the simulacrum and into real time and space.

When Stewart appeared on the (now-cancelled) CNN show Crossfire in October 2004, he destroyed the format of the programme. It had aired since 1982 and promoted itself as a balanced debate between Right and Left, but Stewart showed the damage to democracy that such a pseudo-debate could create.

The force of his attack led to one of the two political stooges, Republican-leaning journalist Tucker Carlson, mocking his guest: “I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny.” In one of the most powerful counterattacks on television, Stewart spat: “No. No. I’m not going to be your monkey.”

The strength in that denial – in the negation – is rarely used on television. No. I will not participate in this interview if you want me to fill a role in the script you have already written. No. I will not participate in a farcical “debate” with a man who has clearly forgotten to take his medication. No. I will not cry on national television in response to the inane question after the death of a family member, “How do you feel?”

Nonsensical debates between Left and Right, or show-trials of the usual suspects – the “environmental protesters” who, seemingly, all sport multiple body piercings, pink hair and hessian tunics – have transformed news into entertainment.

On Crossfire, Stewart called commentators’ hand. He asked them to “stop hurting America”, demanding they give viewers news, information and evidence, rather than soap opera, scandal and playground bullying. It was one of those rare, riveting moments in television when the metaphoric wheels fall off a moving car.

Stewart is the librarian of television, offering short daily seminars on how to find, decode and critique the information around us. Instead of using catalogues and databases to make his point, he deploys irony and television. The Daily Show has trained its viewers to understand the workings of public relations and the impact of journalistic laziness.

While Bill O’Reilly called Stewart’s audience the “stoned slacker crowd”, they are probably the smartest of television viewers because there is so much assumed knowledge in the programme. For information literacy to emerge, viewers must already understand the protocols and principles of the news. The humour emerges when the audience can see the gap between the importance of news to democracy and the standards of journalism that are promulgated in practice.

Stephen Colbert, once of The Daily Show and now with his own programme ridiculing the expansive personalities of “shock jocks” such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, has assumed a much more dangerous and complex role than his former anchor. He has no equivalent in comedic history. His parody is so close that at times it appears as a sickening homage. But at the moment where he is about to sink into the stupidity and personality cult he critiques, he thrusts a knife into the object of his derision.

The most remarkable example of Colbert’s ability to climb up the news tree while cutting down the branches as he ascends was in April 2006 when he spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Standing a few feet from President Bush, he said:

“We’re not so different, he and I. We both get it. Guys like us, we’re not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the Factinista. We go straight from the gut: right, sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now I know some of you are going to say, ‘I did look it up, and that’s not true.’ That’s because you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut.”

The attack on “factinistas” and book learning in an anti-intellectual age has been a reminder of what we have lost through the two terms of George W. Bush. The assumption that it is reasonable to close libraries, reduce monograph and journal collections and buy a few textbooks that were redundant before they were published has been allowed to progress unchecked for too long.

Why is it acceptable to close public libraries, privatise health care, believe in stock markets, promote experts from think-tanks and deny the expertise held in our universities? While we continue to believe information in our gut rather than conducting research and reading about other perspectives, Colbert will continue to have a role.

He opines: “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today.” The use of irony of that scale – that books and reading are unravelling democracy – offers the most profound counter to the journalists and politicians who are more interested in tears, soundbites and popularity, rather than evidence, argument and research.

Unsurprisingly, academic research on The Daily Show is emerging. One of the finest books on this new relationship between the media and politics is Theodore Hamm’s The New Blue Media. Not interested in questions of political bias, he investigates the role of the activist website MoveOn.org, satirical newspaper The Onion, the talk radio network Air America, documentarist Michael Moore and The Daily Show. He not only explains Obama’s success but demonstrates the mechanisms through which it occurred.

Most positive scholarly and journalistic reviews of Stewart affirm that he speaks truth to power. That is debatable. He actually enacts a much more dangerous and important process: he laughs at those in power.

Stewart has brought the politics, performance and talent of two great comedians of the 20th century through to the 21st. He has the capacity for the physical humour of a Charlie Chaplin, while possessing the wit, courage and razor tongue of Groucho Marx.

Like both of them, he sometimes allows sentiment to overpower interpretation. But equally like both, he is unafraid to express rage, frustration and anger while mocking the pretentious and the powerful. His goal is – as he expressed it at a Paley Center seminar – to provide a “cornucopia of comedic pleasures”.

The Daily Show reminds us that we are a product of our choices. When we decide to read one paper over another, one website over another or watch one programme and not another, we are making decisions that matter.

Our role as teachers is to model behaviour. The best of popular culture can do the same. Stewart asks why the operatives of political parties are not questioned; why truths can be offered without evidence; and why, if a phrase is repeated often enough, it becomes true.

The Daily Show could have run out of bilious rage after attacking Bush and the journalists who did not question him for eight years, but its righteous anger continues to be vented at bankers and stockbrokers. As Stewart corrected Charlie Rose on the latter’s radio programme, “the bias of news is not activist – it’s laziness”. In reminding viewers about the value of truth rather than Colbert’s “truthiness”, and intelligence rather than gut feeling, academics can find both inspiration and a lesson plan.

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