But Does He Ever Call?

The New York Times had a good story this Sunday exploring the irony that the best public affairs show in America is Jon Stewart’s “fake news” comedy half-hour. I cover similar themes in the last chapter of the book, when I’m looking (desperately, some have said) for reasons to be positive about the state of American political culture:

An enormous chunk of Generation Y, those born roughly after 1977, gets its political information from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a comedy news program devoted to the idea that we’re led by fools….

Stewart’s merciless ridicule of President Bush has led some conservatives to complain that the show is politically biased. But the evidence doesn’t support that complaint. In a 2006 study, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that the only overarching prejudice The Daily Show displays is indiscriminate contempt for the political class. According to CMPA, 98 percent of The Daily Show’s coverage of Republicans was negative, compared to 96 percent of its commentary on Democrats. The idea that anyone relying on the program as his or her main source of political news will end up woefully uninformed turns out to be false as well: Daily Show viewers tend to be more knowledgeable than most newspaper readers, even when factors such as education and political interest are taken into account….

In 2006, Daily Show alum Steven Colbert was the featured comic at White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the annual gathering of D.C. journalists where the president is expected to show up and be a good sport by putting up with some gentle ribbing. Colbert wasn’t gentle. In character as the moronic right-wing talk show host he plays on the Daily Show spinoff The Colbert Report, Colbert compared the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster, sarcastically applauded our “success” in Iraq, and suggested that the president was an ignoramus who refused to seek accurate information because “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” A former top administration aide who attended the dinner commented that the president was furious: he had “that look [like] he’s ready to blow.” Colbert’s performance was open, in-your-face disrespect for the presidency, and many people didn’t care for it. Many didn’t like it 10 years earlier at the White House Correspondents Dinner, when President Clinton had to sit uncomfortably while shock-jock Don Imus cracked jokes about Clinton’s marital infidelities (though, then as now, how offended one was largely depended on one’s party affiliation).

Despite the vestiges of hero-worship on display in the press and in popular entertainment, we treat the presidency with less sentimentality and less respect than we have in years…. Mocking those who rule us might seem immature, but consider the alternative: From FDR through LBJ, for nearly four decades, Americans forgot their heritage of political distrust, and looked to the Oval Office with a childlike faith in the occupant’s benevolence. The age of the heroic presidency left a legacy of ruinous wars, unrestrained executive surveillance, and repeated abuses of civil liberties. Perhaps a little disrespect is in order, and perhaps there are worse things, after all, than making the president a punching bag and punchline.


Posted on Aug 19, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Cult of the Presidency | Comments

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