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
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
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
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.
March 18, 2009