In the 1970s, Sander Vanocur told me something I’ve been thinking about ever since. The political satire in Johnny Carson’s monologue, he said, defined the heartland issues.

So it came as no surprise to me that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are a primary source of news for the young. The people whose knickers get in a twist around that haven’t been paying attention, first of all, to many things about journalism, beginning with the fact that the New Journalism (invented at Esquire magazine in the 1960s), now half a century old, imparted new information about what was then the counterculture in a new way. Talese’ story on Frank Sinatra is considered the first wave of all the dreary j-school classes of what I now think they call creative non-fiction?
http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ1003-OCT_SINATRA_rev_

Host Jon Stewart in the studio of The Daily Sh...

Host Jon Stewart in the studio of The Daily Show in 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t go to j school, was the advice the old reporter gave me when I set out for college. Study philosophy, history, phys ed, pottery. You can learn journalism in six weeks. So can its consumers, and so they do.

People whose knickers get into a twist about Stewart and Colbert being peoples’ primary source of news may or may not be professors of journalism, stuffed shirts, or white boys with a vested interest in the circle-jerk method of covering politics, of which Politico is the successful internet avatar. I think we know who the wedgie ones are:

Venise Wagner, associate chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University, argues with her students over whether “The Daily Show” is real journalism. They think it is; she tells them it isn’t, explaining that journalism involves not just conveying information but also following a set of standards that includes verification, accuracy and balance.

But she says “The Daily Show” does manage to make information relevant in a way that traditional news organizations often do not, and freedom from “balance” shapes its success. “‘The Daily Show’ doesn’t have to worry about balance. They don’t have to worry about accuracy, even. They can just sort of get at the essence of something, so it gives them much more latitude to play around with the information, to make it more engaging,” Wagner says.
http://www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=4329

I have no stats on this, but my nose for news tells me the boys-on-the-bus coverage is alienating to voters, and assists the unscrupulous right in its 40 year mission to keep voter turnout low, so they can win, by defining single issues like abortion or same-sex marriage as political matters, which they’re not. I submit to you not that women know better, but that what real political coverage is, is what the League of Women Voters does. The League of Women Voters writes non-partisan policy papers delineating issues without prejudice. I am not familiar enough with their work to say whether or not they add a one-sentence value neutral assessment of what place this issue takes in bona fide conservative (not party) philosophy, and in bona fide liberal philosophy. I suspect they avoid this. I think respectful attention to non-partisan political philosophy is central to the democracy, to political issues, and to what people want to know about the news.

The parsing of the political news for its real meaning is what Stewart and Colbert do. This is what political coverage of 21st century news should be doing, League of Women Voters issues analysis in a cellphone screen-sized format. Naturally Stewart and Colbert parse stories with LULZ value, and this is the bias of their news coverage. I learned from the hordes of people of every color watching Jerry Springer that yeah, people like freaks, geeks, and catfights. But they are absolute junkies for adjudication. The developmental psychiatrist Kohlberg based an entire sexist male template on little boys’ penchant for adjudication — you could say it was arguing over whether or not the ball was inside or outside.

Adjudication is a spectator sport.

Concentration camp survivors say the observation of injustice, of all the things one can suffer in extremity, is extremity’s most corrosive experiece. Primo Levi writes, in The Reawakening, of what has been called metaphysical guilt:

…the shame a just man experiences…at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have prevailed in defense.

Having our noses rubbed in the shameless injustice of politics as practiced for the cameras and for Politico, for the jockeying social aspirations and tin soldier power plays of editors from Wauchula, causes the metaphysical guilt which keeps us from voting.

In any case, adjudication seems nearly instinctual, and the feral, thug-life version of it still forms the way newspapers, online and elsewhere, still cover politics. The competition between politicians is of no interest to us. We like competitive sports — I am noting the importance of soccer players and fandom in the Islamist Algerian wars and in the Egyptian spring uprising — we like freaks and geeks, but covering politics like sports keeps us away from the polls and empowers the heartlessly cynical new right puppetmeisters of the racist hegemony of the last 40 years. One old hippie I know says he doesn’t even think they’re racist. They just use it as a tactic. I respect a racist more.

The New Journalism method of covering these political issues would be to find somebody whose story illustrates the problem, and do a profile of that person. So what you’d have is not a horserace story about the cross-talk between loathsome selfish ideologues shutting down the government on the specious Grover Norquist no-taxes pledge, but, rather, a talk with Grover. A discussion about the tactics one guy uses every day to be powerful enough to single-handedly close down the U.S. government. Grover is the beat, all the rest of those people are ants on his melon.

Grover Norquist at a political conference in O...

Grover Norquist at a political conference in Orlando, Florida. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You say Grover doesn’t talk to the media? I refer you to the Talese Sinatra story, a masterpiece of how to write a story about somebody who won’t talk to you. The political journalism lesson of Watergate that everyone seems to have forgotten is that the White House news does not exist at the White House.

Newspapers get all caught up in that basically because provincial editors want to be invited to the White House correspondents’ dinner and check out Lindsay Lohan’s, or Tim Geithner’s,  tits.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/27/AR2009042700891_pf.html

To have One’s Own Reporter at the White House is the mark of the publisher’s influence either on national policy or society; the reporter is not so secretly viewed as being the publisher’s lobbyist. And the game is on,  the game of political journalism in which news coverage is seen both as a prize and a critique. It leads to such perfectly logical apotheoses as the politician John Edwards’ consulting the actor Sean Penn and movie director Paul Haggis on how to spin his bimbo eruption. That essential rats-in-a-bottle perversion of politics was the other lesson of Watergate, in All the President’s Men — that Washington was Hollywood and Hollywood was Washington.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/features/dcmovies/postinfilm.htm

So, how to cover politics for the 21st century is no secret. The tools have been here for 50 years, whether you call it the New Journalism, Johnny Carson’s monologue, or the Jon Stewart effect.

End political journalism as we know it. It is literally destroying our world.

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