It’s no longer bordering on political parody, or news satire. John Stewart is not just the funniest man on television (along with Conan O’Brien, of course), he’s the smartest and most astute. Amazingly, the stories he presents can often feel more like news than any network coverage around.
I was having this conversation with a friend of mine recently, discussing the adolescent habit news agencies have of regurgitating everything they hear. It’s like the repeating game you probably played when you were younger. The point was to mimic everything a person said to the brink of driving them nuts. It can be funny, or at least entertaining, from a child. From news outlets that espouse journalistic integrity it can be downright deadly.
Think of the Bitter and Whiny Swift Vote Veterans for (Their Fantasy Version of the) Truth. Here is a group of people insulted by the fact that John Kerry, upon returning from war, became a protestor, a voice of dissention. And although not one of them was present in action the days that Kerry earned his medals, news programs began taking in and spitting back out everything they said, almost verbatim. Ignore for a second the fact that every single military document released show that John Kerry is guilty of probably two things: 1) Stretching the truth to a certain extent (something our President has, obviously, never done, right?), and 2) Profound heroism in the face of what had to terrifying and shit-you-pants-and-run-for-your-life experiences. You can only come to one conclusion about the Swift Boat story. It’s not fucking news. It’s gossip; and third hand, tattle telling, behind your back on the playground at recess gossip at that. Where was the news director who looked at the outline to the story when it came in and said, “Frank! What the fuck is this? You call this news? Get out of my office, go find a real story, or you’re fired.”
There's the recent New York Times article covering John Kerry’s speech in the city where he laid out his harshest criticism yet of the war in Iraq. After reporting in great detail Kerry’s attacks on the troubles and issues facing U.S. soldiers and policy makers, the article closed with the following quote by Karl Rove: “The guy seems to have this belief that every time he speaks it's a blank sheet, and he doesn’t have to worry about contradictory things he’s said in recent days, weeks and months.”
I understand the instinct to present both sides of an issue, to have, as it were, a fair and balanced presentation of a given argument. But that quote has absolutely nothing to do with anything. It’s slanted, it’s spin, it’s empty. It addresses nothing, and yet the reporter places it in context as though Rove’ were actually responding to something. Kerry’s camp is just as guilty of this, but the stakes aren’t as high in his case. Karl Rove’s quote was not worthy of journalism. If a side isn’t going to answer the question at hand, who ever made up the stupid fucking rule that you are obligated to print what they tell you.
I believe they call that a hustle.
That’s how Dan Rather got screwed. It’s not that there’s no story to Bush’s Champaign service in the National Guard—there certainly is—it’s that, as a reporter, you have to find the story. Rule of thumb for the future: The story doesn’t come to you. It doesn’t land in your lap or arrive at your door with a bow around it. It’s not faxed to you in the form of a press release. It’s out there, hiding with Briar Rabbit in the brambles, so get a saw and mower and go find it.
That was the point my friend was making. He closed the conversation with an interesting point. “You ever done this?” he asked me. “Go to CNN.com and check out their headlines, look at how they cover a story. Now go to CNN International. It’s the same company, right, the same news source? But look at the difference in perspective.” I did. Then I looked up BBC.com.
I recommend we all try it. It’s why, for me, right now, John Stewart is probably the best anchorman on U.S. television today. To see what I mean, check out the link to his show. There’s a clip on it called “Media Culpa” about the recent Dan Rather fumble. Check it out. Because he skewers the news media so successfully, sometimes he’s the only legitimate source, along with outlets outside of United States, for the truth there is.
I can't believe I have to get pissed off about this shit.