Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Fake Old News

Con Edison, the local power provider in these parts, has an ad campaign in subways and elsewhere, that features the slogan "On It." This lets you know not to worry. If there's an outage somewhere, Con Ed is on it. If there’s a coffee break somewhere, Con Ed is on it. Good slogan.

I think the New York Times should steal it. In recent years, the Times has alerted us to the increasing presence of political blogs and the growing trend of graphic novels, in each case well after most of us already knew. Now today's double-shocker: Fake TV news is hot, and Saturday Night Live has lost its touch.

In this review of Stephen Colbert's new show on Comedy Central, one of the paper's TV critics, Alessandra Stanley, strangely and unconvincingly mashes together praise for Colbert with an astonishingly outdated attack on SNL. The piece is a showroom for paragraphs that sit on the page without context or relevance, antiques of comedy criticism:

"SNL’s" Darrell Hammond is still an amazingly gifted impersonator who can mimic anyone from Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney to Aaron Brown, but the writing is rarely as clever as his performance.
The review’s odd structure (and sense of timing) wouldn’t bother me if it wasn’t part of a larger problem. At one point today, the paper’s web site was linking to the piece via this headline: "Absurdity of the News, Exposed." This is the larger problem: The New York Times seems to believe, quite earnestly, that exposing the absurdity of the news is...news.

Don't get me wrong. I think the Daily Show is frequently brilliant, and I'm sure Colbert's new venture is as well (I haven't seen it yet, but can't wait). But even in the run-up to the last election, I was already tired of the Times treating Jon Stewart and company as trailblazers in educating the masses about how they're being spoon-fed the news. Fake news is one of the first comedic conceits I remember ever seeing. Saturday Night Live started its Weekend Update segment in the mid-70s. In the mid-80s, I was a bit too young to be drawn to Not Necessarily the News on HBO, but it’s certainly part of the genre we’re talking about, and it proves that the liberal slant alone can’t justify the Times (and others, to be fair) acting like The Daily Show has invented the light bulb. As a reviewer of Not Necessarily the News writes here, "NNTN was probably the root of my aversion to the Republican party. For which I'm grateful."

And let’s not forget Kent Brockman, that ungodly combination of Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney, that admixture of reassuring avuncular anchorman and bloviating know-nothing created by the geniuses at the Simpsons. He’s been around since the early 1990s. Brockman, like most of the Simpsons in its prime, and like Stewart and anyone who’s good at mocking the news business, proves that the sharpest comedy comes when you attack all persuasions of nonsense and self-righteousness with equal fervor.

Of course, most comedy writers will tell you this. Colbert certainly will. Deborah Solomon, whose interviews with various celebrities and public figures run in the Times Magazine each Sunday, talked to Colbert in late September, and here are two excerpts from their exchange:

SOLOMON: Seriously, what do you have against gravity?
COLBERT: If we thought we added gravity to anything, we would feel that we had failed. We're just trying to ease the pain of people who feel the world is going insane and no one is noticing.

SOLOMON: I think you're underestimating the influence the show has had.
COLBERT: People might perceive it as substantive because the jokes happen to be political. But I guarantee you that it has no political objective. I think it's dangerous for a comedian to say, 'I have a political objective.' Because then they stop being a comedian and they start being a politician. Or a lobbyist.
The Times ignores Colbert’s convincing analysis, though, in most of its coverage of him and others, because the Times is partly in the business of finding and celebrating lobbyists. The Daily Show was quite funny during the Clinton administration, but making fun of a Democrat-run country doesn’t qualify as revolutionary or particularly praiseworthy at the Times. Granted, Bush provides a bounty of material, but those who cheer for Stewart and company out of a sense of loyalty during these dark days should remember that a team of comedy writers would be equally eager to skewer the opposite side if and when it held power. As Colbert implies, the joke is the thing.

And the jokes to be played at the expense of most television news have to do with the medium, not the message. The avalanche of brief, repetitive, vacant analysis about unessential or salacious stories often makes television inherently ridiculous (and so, often funny).

It’s an endgame long in the making. In his brilliant book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which focuses on television’s corrosive effects on the average viewer's political IQ, Neil Postman quotes something Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:

"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate..."
Postman took Thoreau’s analysis and updated it, bringing it to bear on television:

"As Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. Coleridge’s famous line about water everywhere without a drop to drink may serve as a metaphor of a decontextualized information environment: In a sea of information, there was very little of it to use. A man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into 'one neighborhood,' but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other."

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