Thursday, August 18, 2005

Stewart's Lament

One of the things people love about the Daily Show is how "hip" Jon Stewart is. His fake-news-show-host persona brilliantly sends up the stodgy, white, impassive talking-head stereotype that every news station in America follows to the letter. But there is at least one respect in which Stewart is hopelessly old-fashioned: his Jeffersonian ideal of the press as some kind of selfless public service whose only goal is to help people better understand the issues that shape our world. In the following quote, transcribed from the audiobook version of America: The Book, Stewart phrases this opinion with unequivocal profanity:
A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy. It serves to inform the voting public on matters relevant to its well-being. Why they've stopped doing that is a mystery. I mean, 300 camera crews outside a courthouse to see what Kobe Bryant is wearing when the judge sets his hearing date while false information used to send our country to war goes unchecked . . . what the fuck happened? These spineless cowards in the press have finally gone too far, they have violated a trust . . . "Was the president successful in convincing the country?" Who gives a shit? Why not tell us if what he said was true? And the excuses, my god, the excuses! "Hey, we just give the people what they want. What can we do? This administration is secretive. Uhh, but the last season of Friends really is news!" The unmitigated gall of these weak-willed--you're supposed to be helping us! You indecent piles of shit, I--Fuck it, just fuck it!
As you can see, Jon Stewart is very, very angry at the US news media. He manages to hide it fairly well underneath a thick coating of really funny satire, but this quote gives us a rare glimpse beyond the veil into his real opinion of the state of the press today (as did his infamous fit of brutal candor on Crossfire last year). On his show every weeknight Stewart does his best to stem the tide of the media's panderous excesses, but I'm afraid he's fighting a losing battle.

The problem, as usual, is money. In a national media environment dominated by free enterprise, it's not surprising that pluralism would manifest itself in a kind of race to the bottom as CEOs realize that holding people's attention spans is more important than providing quality journalism. Jon blames "spineless" reporting, but he should save his harshest invective for the people who keep swallowing it and thus legitimate the media's market-driven priorities.

Of course, his criticisms are neither unfounded nor original. Stewart no doubt looks back fondly on the days of Watergate and groundbreaking, unflinching Vietnam War coverage, a time when a fiercely independent press bucked government priorities and audience expectations to tell "the real story." So what's changed? Several things, most notably media consolidation and an ever-expanding battle between content providers for American attention. Both of these forces work to deprioritize whatever doesn't sell in favor of whatever does, even if quality journalism falls in the former category.

Large corporations including Gannett, News Corp., Clearchannel, and AOL/Time Warner have made it their imperative to snap up as many little papers, radio stations, and TV outlets as possible. This assimilationist business model almost of necessity entails tailoring media content to fit viewers' and listeners' preexisting preferences and prejudices as closely as possible to maximize profits. Since the 1970s, staffs have been slashed, use of wire reports has increased, local coverage has decreased, and the remaining content has been homogenized. Plus, the American attention span is more hotly coveted today than ever: the news media now have to contend with the web, video games, instant messaging, mobile phones, and Tivo for a share of it. The upshot of all this is that the current state of the media seems an almost inevitable consequence of the laws of the free market. So much for laissez-faire capitalism always automatically producing the best of all possible worlds.

It doesn't have to be this way, however. The UK is home to one of the world's most highly-regarded news sources, the BBC, which is funded not through advertising but by annual television license payments. Because it is controlled by neither the government nor a profit-driven company, it is theoretically free to operate according to purer journalistic principles untainted by special interests. And the proof is in the pudding: I don't have the empirical studies to back this up, but when was the last time you saw a "missing white girl" story on the Beeb's front page? Plus, its international coverage stands head and shoulders above the best the US has to offer, and it rarely hesitates to deviate from the official line if things smell fishy.

The BBC's closest American equivalent is NPR, which draws well under half of its income from taxes: most of the rest comes from corporate underwriting and member station contributions paid voluntarily by the public. NPR is also significantly smaller than the BBC, which testifies to America's enduring belief that the individual should be the ultimate arbiter of all things. Viewed from this perspective, Stewart's lament looks pretty elitist: if the people want to hear about Tom Cruise, Natalee Holloway and Jacko on the news, who is he to say that's wrong? That's what democracy is all about, after all. I happen to agree with Jon on the merits of his grievances, but I believe that the focus needs to be on educating the populace in responsible citizenship while they're young rather than taking potshots at the media for not dictating to adults what they ought to care about. Under a media setup like ours, the latter plan is doomed to failure.