So MSNBC’s parent network, NBC, and corporate grandparent, GE, decided that it was the better part of valor to bow to pressure from Republicans whining about “bias” than to continue pursuing a winning ratings strategy: they demoted “liberal” Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews from campaign-season anchor duties (by the way, if Chris Matthews is a “liberal,” we might as well throw out the dictionary–the word has lost all meaning). The totally untainted by bias David Gregory (whom you may remember as one of Karl “M. C.” Rove’s backup dancers) will handle those chores from here on out.
The last straw–or more accurately, the excuse–for Olbermann’s demotion was his on-air objection to the GOP’s exploitative use of graphic 9/11 footage at their convention. Instead of maintaining the pretense of disinterested “objectivity,” Olbermann reacted to something he found shocking and disgusting with shock and disgust. For an anchorman, that’s a big no-no.
The principle that reporters and anchors should put aside their own opinions and present all points of view fairly is a good one, in theory. In practice, however, journalistic “objectivity” has been turned into an excuse for throwing skepticism, judgment, and even the recognition of empirical truths out the window. We must respectfully report what both “sides” say, even if one side says “fire is hot,” and the other side says, “fire is NOT hot, and third-degree burns are just Satan’s way of making us think that it’s hot–just like he went around burying all those dinosaur bones to make us doubt the book of Genesis.” Over the last couple of decades, the GOP has played the the media’s fear of being charged with “bias” like a violin, and the result is that views that would once have been considered nutty, and tactics that would once have been considered sleazy (like McCain’s baseless charge that Obama supports sex ed for kindergartners), must now be accepted without question. This is not “objectivity,” it’s capitulation to the irrational, and to the bullies who depend on the support of the irrational.
Still, one could reasonably argue that Olbermann was blurring the line between his role as anchor and his role as “Special Comment”-ing pundit. Pundits are expected to have opinions. Anchors aren’t allowed to have them.
What does any of this have to do with comedy? I was reflecting on Comedy Central’s coverage of the party conventions, and how fake-anchor Jon Stewart’s role differed from fake-pundit Stephen Colbert’s. Stewart’s show has better ratings, and is still, I suppose, a bigger deal–note that The Daily Show traveled to Denver and St. Paul, while Colbert stayed in NYC (in spite of what his backdrops showed during those two weeks). But in terms of hard-hitting satire, the Report beat The Daily Show by a landslide, and a lot of that has to do with the same anchor/pundit distinction that makes Olbermann a lot more compelling than David Gregory (though, to be fair, we haven’t seen Olbermann dance).
Though Stewart is hardly obligated to be neutral, he does make a considerable effort to appear “objective,” which, in the misguided universe of media “ethics” is synonymous with “balanced.” He’s got to “hit” the Democrats just as hard (okay, almost as hard) as the Republicans, even if he doesn’t have nearly as much to hit them with–even if he and his writers have to take their cues from the GOP spin machine, as they have on several occasions this campaign season. Lacking much substantive fodder with which to mock Obama, The Daily Show has repeatedly fallen back on “the press loves Obama” meme.
Personally, I’ve never bought that–I do think his newness and novelty (as the first viable non-white presidential contender) brought him a lot of media attention (Sarah Palin’s getting the same treatment now), but they’ve been much harder on Obama than All-Time Media Darling John “Straight Talk” McCain. Sure enough, a little-publicized survey by the Center for Media and Public Affairs six weeks into the post-primary campaign found that although Obama was getting more play on network news, the 72% of that coverage was negative (compared to only 57% of the McCain coverage).
But, hey–Jon Stewart’s got to hit “both sides,” right? To a degree, yes. He doesn’t have to pretend to be an “equal-opportunity offender” like Jay Leno. Most of Stewart’s audience shares his liberal outlook (though I think he’s more centrist than most of his ardent fans, and his personal devotion to John McCain rivals even Chris Matthews’s “Maverick” man-crush). Still, he works to maintain some appearance of disinterest, devoting the occasional segment to ragging on the Democrats, even if the audience response is lukewarm. (Did anybody else notice how badly his criticism, a few weeks ago, of the MoveOn “John McCain can’t draft my baby” ad went over?) Some of this might reflect Stewart’s own anti-political distrust of true believers, regardless of where they fall on the left/right spectrum. But it’s also a indication of how even a fake anchorman can allow himself to sacrifice the obligation to tell the truth (which is rarely “balanced”) to the supposedly nobler principle of “objectivity.” It doesn’t matter if the ratio of one party’s lies to the others is 50:1–they both must be punished with equal (or roughly equal) vehemence.
A pundit is under no such obligation. His guiding principle is not balance, objectivity, or even fairness, but persuasion. The rise of the broadcast pundits has produced a lot of irresponsible propaganda, and some really compelling, fair-but-opinionated advocacy journalism (I’d put Hannity and O’Reilly in the first category, Olbermann and Rachel Maddow in the second–and yes, that aligns with my own political predilections, but I think a conservative could be a responsible pundit. I’ll let you know if I see it happen.) But whatever punditry has done to the “news” business, it’s provided a real opportunity for the topical comedy business.
Stephen Colbert has capitalized on this opportunity, with a show and an approach that is not only brilliant in itself, but an antidote to the cynical, forced “neutrality” that defines Leno-style topical comedy, and limits even Stewart. Bill Maher was tossing out opinions for years before Colbert showed up, but even he hedges his bets, portraying himself as an “independent,” and a left-libertarian, rather than the liberal he mostly is.
Unlike Stewart’s fake newsman, Colbert’s fake-pundit makes no obeisance to the principle of “balance”; and unlike Maher (and also unlike Leno, Letterman, et al.), he doesn’t need to worry about being “liked” by fans and guests who don’t agree with him–because he’s not playing “himself.”
The role he plays–and the fact that it is a role–lets Colbert and his writers go as far comedically as Olbermann goes in his “Special Comments.” And unlike a real anchor, or even a fake one, he never has to rein in his editorial / satirical tendencies for the sake of “objectivity.”
He can just object.