No one at the table had heard of the reality TV show the Cougar. Of course not. Except for the young man who brought it up and whose high school buddy is one of the prey, and me who rationalizes intake of popular media with the argument that to be an effective communicator, I need to know what the masses are talking about. The rest were serious scholars at the policy think tank where I work. It was the monthly bagel breakfast and the president, an avuncular and professorial man, happened to be sitting at the next table. So I thought out loud whether he knew of the Cougar.
Turns out that, unsurprisingly, he did not. However, his wife had recently turned him on to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He asked if any of us followed the less than cordial exchange between Stewart and Jim Cramer (ask me! ask me!). He was amazed by Cramer’s contriteness. However, he was concerned that a majority of Americans, especially the young ones, got their news and editorial from Stewart and Colbert than Lehrer.
Eric Alterman writes in the Nation:
It’s a sad–almost terrifying–comment on the state of the American media that we have come to rely on these two funnymen to tell us the truth about our country in the same way we relied on Murrow in the ’50s and Walter Cronkite in the ’60s.
However, Alterman articulates my feeble protest to the boss that Stewart and Colbert serve a valuable function in contemporary punditry.
… as the mainstream media keep reminding us, albeit unintentionally, the MSM’s groupthink is invulnerable to reality. Like the president who remained so popular with them for so long, it literally takes a hurricane and a biblical-style flood to get them to pay attention to events that do not conform to the agreed-upon national narrative.
As such, while Stewart clowns it up,
…. along with Stephen Colbert, his ability to entertain is what lends him his authority in the first place. Think about it. Why should we care who this or that newspaper publisher endorses for president? Answer: we only care because we care about the editorial influence on the audience. Presidential candidates don’t go seeking the endorsement of high school newspapers because, well, dude, kids don’t vote. Stewart and Colbert have the audience that powerful people want to reach; yet at the same time, these two men do not participate in a pack mentality, and that’s what makes them politically invaluable (and at this point, irreplaceable).
Their “we’re just comedians” protestations notwithstanding, both men appear to take this part of their job no less seriously than they do the funny parts. It cannot be mere coincidence that they are responsible for three of the most important/cathartic media moments of the past decade. Stewart pretty much ended Crossfire all by himself and retired the foolish notion that a left/right food fight leads one any closer to truth. Next, Colbert shamed and exposed the pathetic performance of the White House press corps with his brilliant after-dinner speech at the correspondents’ dinner. And now Stewart, first by eviscerating the coverage of CNBC and second by forcing Jim Cramer to own up to his on-air hucksterism, has revealed the lie at the center of most business coverage (and just about all cable news).
While I do watch the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, I also catch the Newshour with Jim Lehrer and Washington Week with Gwen Ifill (love her!). However, whether we like it or not, I can see how eyes can glaze over PBS news coverage. Shields and Brooks ain’t Stewart and Colbert (sorry gentlemen). It is what it is. At least the young ones are getting some news and sound albeit less-formal-and-more-farcical opinion from really smart thinkers. The challenge now is to find the right format and media to transmit good information and analysis to the next generation.
Image from SteveAudio.