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Norman Solomon: Dubious Praise for ‘The Daily Show’

September 11, 2008

Norman Solomon

As corporate media coverage of the presidential race becomes even more notably stingy with intrepid journalism, the mainstream press enthusiasm for “The Daily Show” seems more cloying than ever.

The pattern is now a routine feature of the media landscape: “The Daily Show” gets laudatory attention from major news organizations, where countless journalists watch like shackled prisoners in awe of Superman.

Look — up in the media sky — it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Jon Stewart!

While news accounts note how many viewers hold faux “news anchor” Stewart in higher esteem as a journalist than the “real” ones at the top of the media pack, there’s a sheepish quality to much of the coverage about “The Daily Show.”

After all, many big-name journalists have earned their keep by describing and analyzing the embroideries of the emperor’s new clothes. It blows their conformist minds to see a network program that regularly exposes right-wing rulers without a stitch.

A recent Sunday edition of the New York Times devoted more than two full broadsheet pages to “The Daily Show,” starting with a color photo of Stewart that filled nearly half the cover page of the newspaper’s “Arts & Leisure” section. The program “has earned a devoted following that regards the broadcast as both the smartest, funniest show on television and a provocative and substantive source of news,” eminent Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote.

Consider the subtexts of this passage in the story: “Mr. Stewart … and his writers have energetically tackled the big issues of the day — ‘the stuff we find most interesting,’ as he said in an interview at the show’s Midtown Manhattan offices, the stuff that gives them the most ‘agita,’ the sometimes somber stories he refers to as his ‘morning cup of sadness.’ And they’ve done so in ways that straight news programs cannot: speaking truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language, while using satire and playful looniness to ensure that their political analysis never becomes solemn or pretentious.”

If “straight news programs cannot” tackle the “big issues of the day” while “speaking truth to power,” we should ask a key question: Why not?

Well, OK. That says a lot about “The Daily Show.” But what does it say about the “real” news media — and especially about the most important and self-important huge media outlets that dispense news with enormous ripple effects across the media terrain?

If — as the New York Times soberly reported in the article — “straight news programs cannot” tackle the “big issues of the day” while “speaking truth to power,” we should ask a key question: Why not?

But this is not a question that media outlets like the Times seem interested in pursuing to any depth.

Contrasts with the overwhelming bulk of corporate media are primarily drawn to underscore the uniqueness and extraordinary qualities of “The Daily Show.” It’s exceptional as an exception. Comedy Central’s most famous program is in the spotlight, and the vast expanses of the corporate media are the arrays of darkness that make it so conspicuous. What sheds light is punched up by what blocks it.

Absent from the fawning media coverage of “The Daily Show” is evident self-awareness that the elaborate praise is a tacit form of convoluted self-loathing — in professional terms anyway — among the likes of, say, Times journalists. Their own media institution is so circumscribed and so lumbering in its daily incarnation that they’re apt to be amazed and envious at the incisively documented presentations on “The Daily Show.”

That’s the way it goes in medialand. What isn’t conspicuous is apt to be insidious. The tick-tock of U.S. media hypnosis may be passably good at looking back — reexamining some aspects of propaganda for the Iraq invasion, for instance, years after it occurs — while now helping to mesmerize the country into escalation of the war in Afghanistan. But let’s not quibble. Everybody has a job to do.

Norman Solomon is the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” The book has been adapted into a documentary film of the same name. For further information, go to: www.normansolomon.com

Copyright 2008 Norman Solomon

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