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A Canticle for Liebowitz
Media gets a gobsmacking it richly deserves

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
March 14, 2009

The history of journalism includes historic interviews that illuminated, defined, enriched, and sometimes caused changes.

Most people have heard of the famous Edward R. Murrow interview of Senator Joseph McCarthy, which marked Murrow as the first major journalist to take a stand in the face of the right wing demagogue's bluster. The David Frost / Richard Nixon interview, recently celebrated in a major film, is the stuff of journalistic legend. Jann S. Wenner , of Rolling Stone, interviewed the complex and beguiling John Lennon, illuminating one of the most innovative and remarkable minds in rock music. The late, lamented Edward Bradley had several important interviews with Mohammad Ali, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan. The rest of the “60 Minutes” staff have racked up hundreds of memorable interviews, with the famous, the obscure, the powerful and the needful. Some great interviews are a matter of fortuitous timing. BBC's Martin Bashir interviewed Princess Diana of England, a meeting that would not have been memorable had the princess not died the next week. Some became famous and important too late. If more people had read George Sylvester Viereck's Q&A with Adolf Hitler, maybe someone would have shot the son of a bitch before he went out and caused the deaths of some fifty million people.

Comedians, as a general rule, don't lead to great interviews. Johnny Carson was superb at drawing his guests out, but none of those interviews ever really changed much of anything, limited as they were by the format of the show. And comedians who have biting social satire in their repertoire are, in the end, far more effective at delivering their routines than they are at getting the message out in sitdowns with reporters. George Carlin and Robin Williams may have been brilliant in their social commentary, but they weren't about to sit down with a president and draw him out about his foibles and affairs in office. It takes a lot to get a great interview; compassion, knowledge, insight, intelligence, time, and the right milieu. “60 Minutes” does so well at this because that is what they are explicitly designed for, right from the start. The value of this is demonstrated by the fact that in a sad era when the sorry remnants of American journalism are in collapse, “60 Minutes” remains strong, vital, respected, and the most powerful news show on television. If the timid corporate stooges that own America's former free press had half as much courage as they do desire for profit, there would be dozens of shows like “60 Minutes.”

But for corporations treading where they really don't belong, in the newsrooms of America, true journalism is fraught with risk. GE owns NBC, and has a big stake in nuclear energy, and isn't going to want to see any stories about how the present technology isn't completely safe.

Rupert Murdoch may have come out and publicly stated that he now accepts that global warming is real and caused by human activities, but the board of directors, stockholders and audience for Faux News don't want to hear that crap, so Faux continues to pretend that it's all just a liberal scam by Al Gore and hire retread whores from the Tobacco Institute to swear we have global cooling or whatever.

In other words, ninety percent of the mainstream news is crap in America. That's the real reason support for it is plunging. Americans want information that hasn't been strained through the various corporate filters of Viacom, GE, Time-Warner, News Corp, or Disney. Newspapers are failing, not because of the internet (they are doing just fine in places like Japan and Europe, where the net is even more pervasive), but because they have become corporate tools, and, having competed themselves into a corner where their advertisers no longer want to pay for news bureaus, depend on yet another corporate tool, AP, for a news-like kibble substance. Then they can't figure out why people don't want to read them.

The NY Times yesterday provided a good example the day before yesterday. New unemployment application numbers came out, showing that the economy is still contracting at an implosive rate. This barely got a mention from the Times, which was far more excited over a big rally sparked on Wall Street caused by a corporation that announced a $35 billion profit for the last quarter. Of course, they got about $125 billion in bailouts. Give me $125 billion and I can show you a $35 billion profit for the quarter, too. It wasn't “Happy Days Are Here Again,” exactly. Over half a million more families were thrown into disarray, leaving millions of people wondering about food, shelter, health care and clothing in the richest country in history, but the Times barely mentioned it, even though bad employment numbers are good for Wall Street. Two million lives disrupted, but a few thousand parasites on Wall Street had a good day. Guess which the Times thought the more news-worthy story?

In this wasteland of corporate media, there is Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz. Better known as Jon Stewart.

Stewart long ago demonstrated that he is one of the most incisive and capable interviewers on television. But because it's self-described “fake news” on the Comedy Channel, it was a while before anyone noticed.

It had been on for a year before I finally watched it, because the Comedy Channel itself is pretty lame, pretending to cutting edge humor in a situation where it can't say “fuck” on the air and has to be careful not to offend. If I want that, I can watch some old Bob Hope videotapes. So when I finally did catch the show, it was a matter of accident. I must have thought there was an old Bob Hope revue on or something.

I was astonished to find that Stewart's show was smart, funny, and incisive, and if bowdlerized by the network censors (ah! The land of free speech!), managed to be edgy. Even more startling, his interviews featured actual tough questions, and not the “Why do liberals suck?” demagoguery masquerading as “tough questions” on CNN and Faux.

Stewart quickly established himself as a leading media critic, often using a montage of various news presenters all uttering the exact same phrase over the previous 24 hours – tellingly, a descriptive phrase, rather than a statement of fact – to show how the right wing echo chamber worked, and how chillingly pervasive it was. He did more than the rest of us combined to show how thoroughly the mainstream news media had become a creature of the corporate right.

One of the loudest and most noisome gab-fests on cable TV was CNN's Crossfire, in which Paul Begala and James Carville and others shouted at one another across a huge partisan divide largely of their own invention. It was a show made by idiots for idiots, and Stewart frequently used it as a bad example of television media. This piqued the Crossfire people, and they invited Stewart to appear on their show, expecting a rather dim funny man who wouldn't know much about the issues and could be quickly smacked down.

What they got was a calm, collected tongue lashing from a composed and utterly focused Stewart. He described the endless shout-fest as being like “saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition." When Tucker Carlson claimed that Stewart didn't do any better at covering the news, Stewart said, “You're on CNN! The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls! What is wrong with you?” Finally, he spread his hands and said, “Please stop. You're hurting America.”

Stewart stuck around at the set for several hours after the show ended to discuss the matter with the hosts. It's difficult to see if it made any difference to them, but it did to Jonathan Klein, the incoming new President of CNN. He watched the tape, concluded that Stewart was right, and canceled “Crossfire.”

It established Stewart as someone to be taken seriously, even though he continued to deride his show as “a fake news show.” But it's actually satire. News shows – in theory, at least – provide information. Satire provides truth, and can be much more effective.

If media is co-opted by the corporations, no portion is more throughly owned than the so-called “financial sector.” From the Wall Street Journal to the morning hog-bellies report, economic-based shows have more and more become shills for Wall Street interests.

Jim Cramer of CNBC was one of the more egregious examples of that shilling, and Stewart showed a montage of shills, Cramer prominent among them, giving what turned out to be catastrophically bad advice to the people who they were supposedly trying to help with their shows. In reality, they were playing their audiences for fools. Thousands of people lost lots of money because they listened to Cramer. I personally know some of them.

He took exception, and went on Stewart's show to make his case. Stewart was ready for him, and the result was one of the most spectacular moments of deconstruction since Murrow interviewed McCarthy.

I won't try to describe the interview, which in its unedited raw form is about 16 minutes long. Instead, I'll just provide the link, and urge readers who haven't already seen it to do so.

I can promise this: nobody will ever dismiss Stewart as being just a comedian who mocks politicians again. He is a Mark Twain, a Will Rogers. He's a dangerous man.

He's the best type of dangerous man America can have.

Posted: March 18, 2009

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