First, just in case you haven’t seen it, please review the video (in three parts).
It’s been suggested before that Jon Stewart is perhaps America’s most trustworthy journalist. Which is nice for him, but not so good for the rest of us, because he’s not a journalist. He’s a comedian. He’s David Letterman. He’s Larry the Cable Guy. He’s Phyllis Diller. He makes his living by making people laugh.
But here he is, once again stepping up and telling truth to power in ways that seem spectacular to us. (And make no mistake – money is power in America, and media conglomerates are among power’s most critical brokers. So stomping the balls off of Jim Cramer does, in fact, constitute speaking truth to power.)
The relevant part of that last paragraph occurs toward the end of the first sentence. What Stewart did has been the talk of the entire fucking world in the last 48 hours. He, a guy with a TV show, hauled a man out into the town square who has done, by omission or commission – your choice – grave damage to countless Americans. Whether Cramer contributed to the insanity that has led us to our current economic apocalypse directly or whether his worst sin is that he did not use his platform to call out the guilty in advance, he and his employers played a noteworthy role in facilitating our financial crash. And we, the citizenry of the information-logged society in the history of the solar system, stand agog: motherfucking WOW! Did you SEE that?!
This is the tragedy. We’re as staggered at the occurrence of actual journalism as we would be by the sight of Rosie O’Donnell clubbing Donald Trump to death with her boobs. The fact that the only journalism in recent memory has emanated from Comedy Central is … well, it’s like shooting novocaine into the leg of a quadriplegic, really.
Cap and Bells
It’s never been easy – or profitable, or even safe – to speak truth to power. America circa 2009 isn’t the first place when the ordained channels have failed to convey to the people an accurate accounting of the events shaping their lives. In fact, what we’re dealing with now is more reflective of the historical rule than it is the exception.
Throughout most of history you’ve had to search for the truth about power in indirect commentaries: literature, and especially speculative genre fiction, for instance. Comedy. Art. The forms allow a person with a point of view to express it while maintaining a sheen of plausible deniability. “Oh, no, your majesty, I wasn’t writing about your munificent presence! The malevolent criminal monarch in my story is something I imagined might exist in a less just society on a planet in another galaxy.” It’s good to remember that science fiction and fantasy are never about the future or other worlds – they’re always about here and now.
And there’s the very old tradition of the fool. The jester, in his classical incarnation, was the only one in the court who could get away with telling the truth. The fact that he was a certified nutball removed enough credibility from his words that he could say serious things without being taken seriously. He was fine so long as he didn’t slip into lucidity.
Put another way, the truth has always been there if you knew where to look and understood the code. 2009 isn’t a lot different from 1009 in that respect, I imagine. There can be a price to be paid if the wrong person says the wrong thing in the wrong way. Once upon a time the price might be that your loved ones would get to watch your head being paraded around on a pike. Now the price might be something as pedestrian as losing a job opportunity or having your reputation perma-slandered by a vicious partisan noise machine. But there’s always risk, so the citizen bent on telling the truth needs to understand the context.
Throughout the Bush years any journalist with the temerity to act like an actual reporter paid a price. The default was loss of “access,” and that was pretty terrifying to most on the best because your ability to survive was going to be hindered if you couldn’t get anywhere near the newsmakers. This wasn’t the worst that could happen, of course. Ask Joe Wilson or that mealy-mouthed cocksucker Scott McClellan (not a journalist by any means, but a good illustration of the point) what happened when you hit the Bush/Cheney mob a little too close to home. At best, it took courage and hopefully enough cash-on-hand to sustain you through some hard times.
Clearly that wasn’t the only place where the institutions of the Fourth Estate lacked, and continue to lack, courage. As Stewart makes brutally clear in his 20 minute-plus dismemberment of Jim Cramer – a man not heretofore known for being short on words or self-confidence – finding malpractice in the field of financial journalism (my new favorite oxymoron, by the way) is about as tough as finding loose morals in a whorehouse. Think about it. You have CNBC, FOX’s biz news, the Wall Street Journal, the financial sections of hundreds of newspapers, and how many more business “news” outlets. How many of them were warning you of the things that we’re now told were more or less inevitable? (Told by some, I should say – others are still trying to say there was no way we could have predicted this. Which is bullshit – I know some very sharp people who predicted it, but they don’t have TV shows, in large part because they’re the sorts willing to tell the truth about rigged games. Maybe they should have put together an irreverent ventriloquist act or written a fantasy novel.
Media as far as they eye can see, so much media, so much “analysis,” and not a drop of journalism in sight.
It’s true that Jon Stewart isn’t the first funny guy in history to be the best available source of reliable reporting on the social, political and economic condition. But most of those places didn’t have democracies. Most didn’t have a free press. And none of them had more access to information or channels of distribution than we do.
“Journalism is no worse off now than it was during the reign of Caligula” is a true statement, but it’s not the sort of thing an advanced society should have to settle for, either.
Let’s get Jon Stewart the Peabody. Then a Pulitzer for The Onion. And why not a Nobel for the karma-obsessed lead in My Name is Earl?
If that’s the world we’re willing to accept, it’s the best we deserve.