Keeping Up With the Comics

Mainstream news media fail to provide substance

If you haven’t seen the footage of Jon Stewart’s recent appearance on Crossfire, it is well worth a 10-second Internet search. Rather than use the appearance to promote his new book, Stewart launches into a comic assault on the show itself, accusing hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begalla of being “partisan hacks” who hurt the quality of political discourse in the country. After an awkward exchange, commercials cut off the confrontation as Stewart finally resorts to calling Tucker a “dick.” Unfortunately, Stewart’s point, while important and valid, is lost in the hilarity of the exchange.

The fact is that national news media has failed to provide the public with serious discussions on important issues. As competing cable television networks fight for ratings, correctly informing the public is no longer important; rather, the focus is now to keep people tuned in by masquerading entertainment as news. “Infotainment,” which thrives off of heated discussions between outrageously partisan pundits about trivial issues, is all that is fed to the American public.

Turn on the TV and you’re not going to find a group of well-informed people engaged in a nuanced discussion of the relative benefits and drawbacks of a neoconservative foreign policy. Instead, you will be greeted by the likes of Ann Coulter, screaming that John Kerry lied about being in Cambodia during the Vietnam War and is, therefore, a commie coward. Meanwhile, an Al Franken on the other side responds by whining that Bush missed three weeks of training while in the National Guard. And, of course, there’s the Bill O’Reilly to close the argument by offering some inane, vaguely patriotic, point about terrorists hating the freedom that America represents.

If anything, what this presidential election has shown is not that the media has a propensity for conservativism or liberalism. It has a propensity for stupidity—a propensity for avoiding important issues that affect millions of people, while concentrating on trivial matters like the sexual orientation of Dick Cheney’s daughter or how much John Edwards paid for a haircut.

As Stewart points out, this is bad for America. It allows politicians to ignore the serious realities of the world and focus on the trivial games of media politicking. In the world of 24-hour news channels, it is not the candidate with the best policy initiatives or the best record in office who wins; it is the candidate with the biggest stockpile of embarrassing sound bites of his opponent.

Ironically, however, it is the comic media outlets that educate, rather than distract, the public. Shows like The Daily Show, and not Crossfire, offer the most insight into what is actually happening in our world. Perhaps this is because writers for The Daily Show do not get their material fed to them by communications directors or “rapid response teams” from the party headquarters. Rather, they use “the absurdity of the system,” as Stewart calls it, to produce their own content.

This absurd system has to change if Americans are going to make informed decisions at the polls on November 2nd. Mainstream news media need to break loose from the control of party hacks and spinsters and educate the public on what is really happening in the world. The burden of keeping the American public correctly informed should be borne by those entrusted with upholding journalistic standards—not a bunch of comedians writing for The Daily Show.

Brian A. Finn ’06, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator in Lowell House.