If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll likely know that I’m a big fan of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Although the shows are on a major cable channel owned by a multimedia conglomerate, few texts out there do a more effective job of offering a form of popular media criticism, equipping viewers to become more attentive media critics. And arguably, in some of the stronger clips, these shows provide at least some means for digging into the almost impossibly vast archive of cable news images, slowing the relentless stream of talk down to make connections between ideas. In this sense, Stewart and Colbert have an affinity with some of the better practices of the video media critics working for and with Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films to provide a popular (and very funny) form of media criticism.
With that in mind, I’ve been blown away by the recent series of Daily Show segments in which Stewart and his writers have been sending up the financial news industry for their culpability in the ongoing financial crisis. One of Stewart’s primary targets, Jim Cramer, is an especially large target due to predictions (about Bear Strearns, about the real estate market) that have proven to be spectacularly wrong. In response, Cramer (rather unwisely) dismissed Stewart as “just” a comedian, engaging himself in a battle of wits with some of the best TV writers out there, essentially digging himself deeper into a hole by going on virtually every channel NBC owns, a move that Stewart mocks by eiting himself into a couple of shows owned by Viacom (MTV’s The Hills and Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer).
Nicholas Graham has been covering these ideas for the last few days for Alternet and has a really sharp read. Stewart’s original target was Rick Santelli, who referred to people who defaulted on their mortgages as “losers,” ignoring years of bad policy decisions by the government and banking industry and the investment frenzy created by networks and news organizations such as CNBC. Cramer responded in a number of venues, most notably on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, leading to Stewart’s more recent response (available via Graham). I’ll be interested to see how Stewart handles Cramer as a guest, but I think we need more commentary like Stewart’s, not less, in order to make sense of this financial crisis and the logic that made it possible.
Update: I can’t resist a quick pointer to this supremely bizarre attack on Stewart from Big Hollywood. I normally wouldn’t bother, but it’s Spring Break, and for the first time in a while, I don’t have any looming deadlines. Short version BH’s Dan Gifford suggests that Stewart is “manipulating” viewers through his use of humor to criticize Rick Santelli’s now-famous CNBC rant. Gifford quotes a passage from Stewart’s monologue that leaves him mystified as to why the Daily Show audeince would laugh:
He had done some critical reporting on the hundreds of billions of dollars of bailout money going to failed banks, failed auto makers and insurers of failed banks and auto makers (laughter).
The laughter isn’t, as Gifford oddly surmises, coming from the idea that Santelli was critical of the bailout money going to “fat cats.” The key to me seems to be the characterization of Santelli’s work as a reporter, the smug self-righteousness that he knows all the answers, a point that is illustrate quite vividly in the montage video featuring Santelli and Cramer authoritatively making predictions that were painfully wrong. And while I’d never take investment advice from CNBC, I’d imagine lots of other poeple did, so Cramer and Santelli’s smug authorittiveness eserves to be taken down a notch or two.
Gifford goes on to argue that Stewart’s humor–like humor in general–is born out of hostility. I’ll leave the full analysis of the use of parody and satire and their relationship to power to those who know the field better than I do. But given how much money this bailout is going to cost American taxpayers, their children (and probably grandchildren), I think we’ve got a right to be hostile. And yes, Santelli’s tone in the rant seemed to imply that we need to bailout the big guys while drawing a line in the sand at helping individual mortgage holders. It’s not a stretch to see why Stewart’s audience might be angry.
Finally, Gifford uses his anti-Stewart rant to undercut the relative sophistication of Daily Show audiences with regards to political news. Citing an Annenberg study that showed that Daily Show viewers knew more about the news than FoxNews watchers, Gifford then–in language that some might regard as “humorous” with a mix of hostility–dismisses the study by suggesting that the Annenberg study’s bar for media literacy is set way too low. I’m willing to go along with that. I desperately wish U.S. citizens were better informed about news and politics. The country would be better for it. So, why do FoxNews viewers know even less about the political world than their Daily Show counterparts? And what does that tell us about our “real” newsgathering channels?
Update 2: I’ll try to do a longer update tomorrow about Jon Stewart’s interview with Jim Cramer, which I think reached, and maybe surpassed, Stewart’s Crossfire appearance. As a number of Tweeps pointed out, Stewart ripped the network to shreds for failing to be accountable to its audience and to the investors who have been encouraged to view the stock market as a long-term investment plan. Yes, it may have been self-righteous, but it was the most satisfying thirty minutes of television I’ve seen in a long time. For those of you who missed it, Yahoo has an early summary of the episode, and I’ll link to the full video tomorrow when it’s available.
Final update: Here’s the full episode.