The Hollywoodization of political discourse

October 28, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Are you tired of "info-tainers" totally blurring the line between news and entertainment? Fed up with feuding TV spin doctors passing as reasoned debaters? Is that your problem, Bunky?

Well, take heart, dear friend. You're not alone.

Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on cable's Comedy Central, feels your pain. And when he recently had a rare opportunity to say so, right in the face of CNN's Crossfire hosts, Tucker ("From the right!") Carlson and Paul ("From the left!") Begala, he let 'em have it.

Conservative commentator Carlson and Democratic campaign consultant Begala invited Mr. Stewart to their show to talk about Mr. Stewart's new book, America. Instead, Mr. Stewart blasted Crossfire for presenting a weapon of mass distortion, partisan arguments that are intended less to inform the public, in Mr. Stewart's view, than to score political points - the video equivalent of mud wrestling while the Republic sinks into the ooze.

"See, the thing is, we need your help," Mr. Stewart said in his most earnest let's-get-serious voice. "Right now, you're helping the politicians and the corporations. You're part of their strategies. You are partisan - what do you call it? - hacks!"

Ah, the effrontery! Mr. Tucker responded testily that Mr. Stewart's recent soft interview with Sen. John Kerry (Sample: "Is it true that every time I use ketchup, your wife gets a nickel?") made the comedian-host look like a stooge for the campaign.

"If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you're more than welcome to," Mr. Stewart responded. "You're on CNN! The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls."

Ah, so that's the difference between the two shows: Mr. Stewart follows puppets, while Crossfire follows Judy Woodruff and leads into Wolf Blitzer. I get it.

Ironically, the televised feud generated a publicity boost so generous for both programs that Mr. Stewart's little sermon instantly become part of the very problem about which he was complaining: the Hollywoodization of political and ideological discourse.

With VIP guests who include Mr. Kerry, former President Bill Clinton, GOP Sen. John McCain and Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie, Mr. Stewart's program presents in its comedy format what Crossfire or ABC's Nightline do in more serious settings. The difference: Mr. Stewart's show attracts more 18- to 34-year-old viewers than the network shows.

Yet, after Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly repeatedly ridiculed Mr. Stewart's audience as "stoned slackers" and "dopey kids" during an interview, a Comedy Central poll found that the show has more college graduates and $75,000 earners in its audience than Mr. O'Reilly's. There's gold in info-tainment.

Nevertheless, I appreciate what Mr. Stewart was complaining about. Crossfire and other argument shows, some on which I have appeared, do not really present "debate" in the classic sense. Like the biting comedy bit about the "Argument Clinic" on Monty Python's Flying Circus, the argument shows often promise a debate but present merely a dispute and hope audiences don't mind the difference.

If it's done cleverly enough, we don't mind the difference. Audiences have conditioned the journalistic field to strike - and we in the media have conditioned them to expect - a happy balance between in-depth information and entertaining, audience-grabbing sensationalism.

"In a world ruled by the fear of being boring and anxiety about being amused at all costs, politics is bound to be unappealing, better kept out of prime time as much as possible," Pierre Bourdieu, a leading dissident intellectual in France, wrote in 1996. "So, insofar as it does have to be addressed, this not very exciting and even depressing spectacle ... has to be made interesting." As a result, he continued, television in Europe as well as the United States is experiencing "a tendency to shunt aside serious commentators and investigative reporters in favor of the talk-show host."

Is that good for democracy? Our ability to rule ourselves is well served when today's information explosion in print, broadcast and the Internet produces an informed electorate. But sometimes I wonder how well-informed we are when, for example, a mid-October USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll finds 42 percent of the American public thinks Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, despite the Bush administration denying any such link.

If entertaining news-talk programs excite the appetites of young and old audiences to learn more about current affairs, such media perform an important public service. But if vast numbers of people think any single TV show provides all the news they need, democracy suffers.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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