October 13, 2010
Waiting for Sanityman: Can Jon Stewart save America?
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Kumbaya has become a synonym for naiveté not because it’s a hippie relic, but because it trivializes the real—not superficial or trumped-up—fissures in our polity, and because it discounts the crippling dysfunctions of our system, like the place of money in politics and the tyranny of the filibustering minority. Yes, it’s true, and grist for comedy, that most Americans—unlike the whack jobs on cable—have other things to do than politics, and it’ll be a real up to see Normal Nation on the Mall. But dealing with the mess on our national hands will take nothing less than the kind of heroic local organizing we saw in 2008, including a massive remobilization of young people. It’ll also take the sober realization that “enemy” is not so wrong a name for the billionaires whose fun at the casino wrecked, and almost destroyed, our economy, and for the oligarchs who pull the strings of their political and media puppets.
The host of “The Daily Show”—the scorched-earth satirist who flays fools four nights a week—knows that. Jon Stewart may be the best journalist on national TV in America, and if you won’t give me “best,” then I’ll take “most necessary.” I know, I know: It’s ridiculous to lump reporters, columnists, network anchors, cable yakkers, comedians and the rest of the journalistic menagerie into the same category. Besides, Stewart insists that he’s the fake anchor of a fake news show. But if you think of journalism as the fourth estate—as a precious antidote to the poisoning of democracy—then “The Daily Show” comes closest to the kind of public discourse we most need right now.
That’s not because the show is uniquely satirical; Colbert, “Saturday Night Live,” Bill Maher and Letterman (not to mention “South Park,” “The Simpsons,” and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane) also do political satire, and often brilliantly. Nor is Stewart alone in being unafraid to make judgments or exert moral authority; MSNBC‘s anchors have skin in the game, too, and no one’s more intellectually fearless than Bill Moyers. What’s peerless about “The Daily Show” troupe is their craft, the way they construct arguments and use video. Their storytelling m.o. has rejuvenated—transformed—what news can be.
At its simplest, “The Daily Show” weapon of choice is the montage, the juxtaposition of today’s footage with file footage. Getting away with hypocrisy depends on amnesia, but Google plus digital video search equals accountability. When the Republicans issued their Pledge to America last month, Stewart lethally skewered its “new ideas” hype by intercutting, word for word, John Boehner in 2010 spouting the exact same rhetoric as John Boehner in 1998. No wonder David Gregory showed that devastating clip when he had the pledge’s spokesman, Congressman Mike Pence (R-Ind.), on “Meet the Press” the following Sunday. The mainstream media interview format is an inherently inconclusive he-said/he-said ritual posing as fact-finding. The Boehner montage was the question that answered itself.
One of “The Daily Show’s” best-known deployments of video was Stewart’s 2009 demolition of CNBC’s “Mad Money” host, Jim Cramer. The thrill was that much of it happened in real time, with Cramer as a guest on the set. Stewart rolls tape of Cramer admitting to short selling when he was a hedge fund manager, and asks him, “What does that mean?
Cramer: I have been trying to reign-in short selling, trying to expose what really happens ... trying to get the regulators to look at it. ...
Stewart: That’s interesting. Roll 2:10.
Cramer (in clip): I would encourage anyone in a hedge fund unit: Do it, because it’s legal. It is a very quick way to make money, and very satisfying. By the way, no one else in the world would ever admit that, but I don’t care.
When Cramer complains that insiders came on his show and lied to him, Stewart is ready with tape of Cramer saying, “You can’t foment. You can’t create, yourself, an impression that a stock’s down. But you do it anyway, because the SEC doesn’t understand it.” Then Stewart shows Cramer demonstrating how to foment Apple stock.
Here’s how Stewart ended the segment:
“I understand that you want to make finance entertaining, but it’s not a f—-ing game. When I watch that, I get, I can’t tell you how angry that makes me because [what] it says to me is, ‘You all know.’ You all know what’s going on ... and so now to pretend that this was some sort of crazy, once-in-a-lifetime tsunami that nobody could have seen coming is disingenuous at best and criminal at worst. ... These guys in these companies were on a Sherman’s March through their companies financed by our 401(k)s, and all the incentives of their companies were for short-term profit. And they burnt the f—-ing house down with our money, and walked away rich as hell, and you guys knew that was going on.”
Now that’s what I call sanity.
It’s delicious when Stewart uses his targets’ own logic to decimate them. When “Fox & Friends” played guilt-by-association to connect Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran—thus corroborating the claim by Fox’s Dick Morris that Cordoba House “is literally a command center for terrorism”—Stewart used the same paranoid reasoning (though with actual facts), and the same crackpot prop (an index card and yellow highlighter), to link scary-seeming Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal to “Fox & Friends”’ own employer, Rupert Murdoch: Alwaleed is the second-largest shareholder in News Corp. outside the Murdoch family.