I’m just a comedian. – Jon Stewart
Back in the day, I enjoyed watching Jon Stewart preaching to the choir as much as anyone. However, I never expected any authentic, radical commentary from him, for three reasons. First, the fact that he never mentioned the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were in office) indicates the limits of his criticism of American policies that have been remarkably consistent, if hypocritical, since the end of World War Two.
Second, and perhaps more fundamental, was his policy of regularly inviting truly revolting creeps like Bill O’Reilly as well as government spokespersons and representatives of the corporate media onto his show. Stewart is first and foremost an entertainer, and no one should have expected him to jeopardize his own status.
Now I have nothing against “reasoned debate.” Indeed, we need much more of it. But by doing this, he gave them and their positions legitimacy before the camera and the millions who watch it, a legitimacy that they neither needed (they got plenty of exposure on their own) nor deserved. This expresses what I call “liberal innocence” – the insistence, despite all evidence, that conservatives (I prefer the term “reactionaries”) and liberals will sort out “the facts” in a disengaged, orderly, intellectual process, on a “level playing field.”
Bullshit. The unedited history of the last sixty years should show anyone who is willing to look that the Right has never played by the “rules” and never will. Naively hoping that they will only solidifies our sense of innocence and leads ultimately to disillusionment with the political process itself.
Stewart had a clear function within the corporate media: to constantly remind his viewers of the limits of acceptable discourse: meaning, from far-right to moderately liberal. Every time he playfully bantered with O’Reilly and his ilk, those scumbags moved a bit closer to the middle in the public, liberal eye. And, given that many young people admitted that they got all their news from him and, perhaps, Stephen Colbert, their roles become even more important.
For a broader understanding of the gatekeeping function in America, see my essays:
False Equivalencies – How Media Gatekeepers Marginalize Alternative Voices
Old White Men: Historians as the Gatekeepers of American Myth
Howard Zinn and the Academic Gatekeepers
For a while I also enjoyed watching Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow trash right-wingers with their devastating wit. However, the fact that they rarely criticized the Obama administration (whose fundamental policies and financial supporters were not significantly different from its predecessors) indicates a similar kind of innocent refusal, even denial, to rock the boat. By skewering right-wingers without either acknowledging collusion by Democrats or offering any authentic, progressive alternatives, they served the function of all the media: to constrict the terms of debate to a fraction of the spectrum and give the impression that we have real freedom of expression in this country.
Eventually, I realized that Maddow and all her MSNBC crowd had become nothing more than spokespersons for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, as Fox TV is for the Republicans. The jokes became stale, safe and predictable.
But ultimately, Olberman was deemed unacceptably liberal to his corporate bosses, who eventually fired him. And who was given the task of letting the public know just why it was good riddance? Why, John Stewart, who slammed Olberman for his “bombast” and “rage,” thereby solidifying his own position as the arbiter of reasoned discourse. Here is the third reason why he never offered any real criticism of corporate power in America. I remember how parents told their activist children in the 1960s, “We approve of your goals but not of your methods.” In attacking Olberman’s style, Stewart was deliberately instructing his audience that, as bad as things may be, one would be wrong to even feel rage, or by extension, to feel anything at all, other than mild (if short-lived) euphoria after having had a good laugh, let alone to act upon it. He rarely spoke truth to power, and when he did, it was from the stance of wounded innocence.
Eventually, with the dominance of Fox News, the Koch-funded Tea Party and the grand con-man Trumpus, the issue of fake news arose to muddy the boundaries between truth and fiction on several levels. But as Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky had been arguing for decades, the established, corporate, “liberal” media had always purveyed news and opinion through subtle but highly slanted narratives quite deliberately intended to reinforce the myth of American innocence and the good intentions of the American Empire.
Stewart and Colbert revived an old entertainment form: comedians pretending to be newscasters, as in Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” Perhaps they were simply taking note of how American culture had been changing since the Ronald Reagan years. As (despite the media’s determined efforts) our grand narrative was breaking down, so were all of our institutions. Especially in the realms of politics, education and entertainment, many people were realizing that there was hardly any difference anymore. Who coined the term “edutainment?” Walt Disney, in 1954.
But Stewart the fake newsman never pretended to have values other those of Stewart the affluent, New York Jewish liberal, or “PEP” (progressive except for Palestine). And for the reasons I’ve mentioned, he could never break out of that bubble, with its gatekeeping function.
Stewart alumnae Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore (along with Seth Meyers) have carried on the tradition without playing the fake newscaster role, but as straight-up, if progressive, comedy. I would argue that Bee and Oliver, angry, persuasive and hilarious as they are (and thankfully not hosting conservatives for “reasoned” debate), have still, on occasion, revealed that they can function as gatekeepers as well. Bee regularly reinforces the anti-Russia narrative that denies the real reasons why Trumpus was elected, and Oliver has demonized those who question Big Pharma’s pro-vaccination narrative. I could be wrong on these issues myself, but we are still talking about gatekeeping, and ultimately gatekeeping always serves the interests of the wealthy. Noah, in keeping with Stewart’s old format, also continued the gatekeeping tradition.
The African American Wilmore committed a more serious sin: he hosted a show with an angry, progressive, mostly person-of-color cast and was openly critical of Barack Obama. He retained the interview format, but his guests were often political activists, and the interviews themselves included members of the cast. There were always at least two Black persons in front of the camera. It’s really surprising that his corporate chieftains kept him around as long as they did. Eventually, they claimed, his ratings were insufficient.
And of course this thought reminds us of a question I regularly pose in these essays: Cui bono? Who profits? Follow the money. Do you remember what CBS Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves said of Donald Trump’s presidential run: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
By this logic, even Bill O’Reilly would become a liberal commentator if the sponsorship or the ratings justified such a change. Up to a point, this seems to be one of the fundamental values of media in late capitalism: if it sells – if there is an identifiable market – keep selling it. Beyond that point, criticism of the system itself, aside from some of the clowns who embody it, becomes intolerable. This, combined with low ratings, spelled Wilmore’s demise.
Colbert was the only fake newsman (his show was called “The Colbert Report”) who actually slipped some real criticism into his schtick. As Emily Nussbaum wrote,
Colbert created a persona—a Bill O’Reilly-inspired blowhard—that evolved into a surprisingly flexible instrument. By wearing a mask made of his own face, he inflected every interaction with multiple ironies, keeping his guests—including politicians and authors—off balance, and forcing them to be spontaneous.
I’d take that statement further. By pretending to be a conservative chatting with other conservatives, he was able to reveal them as the thugs they really were, without giving them legitimacy. It was a subtle difference between him and Stewart, and a very important one: parody vs. satire. Colbert was a subversive: he undermined the dominant discourse and got away with it, because he had great ratings. By the way, those ratings provided the answer to the common question: “Why would those people allow themselves to look so foolish?’ The answer: Cui bono. Any publicity is good publicity.
I use the past tense here, because his shift from a cable channel to CBS sucked him straight into the vortex of national gatekeepers, as he now regularly interviews every celebrity he can find who has a new book, movie or political campaign. But without the conservative mask, there is no irony and no implied criticism.
One of his very first guests in September 2015 was Trumpus himself. Perhaps Colbert assumed that a Trump nomination, not to mention presidency, was so unlikely that the comic potential and legitimization would be worth it. Fans who expected him to skewer Trump were certainly disappointed, however, as Trump refused to take his mild baiting and Colbert actually apologized for having criticized him in the past.
Indeed, like every interview he would do on the new show, it was a typical network-style discussion: long on safe, predictable jokes, short on the old irony and de-legitimizing. The effect was what we would later describe as “normalization.” Nussbaum describes these interviews:
With the irony drained away, Colbert was less vivid. He had a try-hard earnestness, a damp corporate pall; he was courtly with guests, as if modeling bipartisan behavior. Taking off the mask had made him less visible, not more.
Eventually, as Trump ascended, so did Colbert’s anger, but the late-night format continues to dictate the content – and the normalization. Attacking Trump is necessary and provides needed relief. But it isn’t in itself subversive when everyone is doing it, and when much of the criticism is calculated to support the liberal narrative of Hillary Clinton, the DNC and Russian hacking: If only they hadn’t done that, we’d have a real president.
Under an absurdist regime, intensified by the digital landscape…all jokes become “takes,” their punch lines interchangeable with CNN headlines, Breitbart clickbait, Facebook memes, and Trump’s own drive-by tweets, which themselves crib gags from “Saturday Night Live.” (“Not!”) Under these conditions, a late-night monologue begins to feel cognitively draining, not unlike political punditry.
Nussbaum prefers Oliver, Bee and Myers. But it always comes back to gatekeeping, one of the primary functions, incidentally, of The New Yorker, where her article appeared.These three are all excellent and progressive comics. Unlike Wilmore and his cast, however, they’re all white, and it shows.
In 2023, when haters have free rein, from MAGA Republicans down to violent cops and loonies in bleacher seats, when humor is nearly indistinguishable from government proclamations, angry (even if funny) Black men are still beyond the pale, with the exception of the mild Trevor Noah. Keeping them – and their implied assault on American innocence – out there is one reason why gatekeepers do what they do, and why they are paid so well.
Meanwhile, everyone Colbert invites on the show, no matter how heinous, is “a friend of the show”.
Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 233: Normalizing Trump, Part Two of Four | madnessatthegates
Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 334: American Exceptionalism, Part One of Six | madnessatthegates
Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 334: American Exceptionalism, Part One of Six – Barry Spector’s Blog