Saturday, October 23, 2004

Pap Fiction

It will come as no surprise to those who have read this blog from time to time that I am a full-fledged, full-blown, full-grown, dyed in the wool, devoted, and even besotted admirer of Jon Stewart.
(He of the heavenly blue penetrating eyes, mischievous smirk, terrible Johnny Carson impression and – I remain convinced – undeserving wife. He also fronts a little faux news program called ‘The Daily Show’ whose quartet of weekly offerings form the most penetrating and honest examination of the news available on television.)
So when it came to my attention that some character with the unlikely sounding name of Papp (Leslie) was taking gratuitous shots on the editorial page of The Toronto Star at the object of my affection, I raced straight over to the computer – with neither need nor interest in putting on so much as a dressing gown – flipped the switch, found the page and began this entry which begs to disagree entirely with the position of the person named Papp.
(And I offer this advice in what will only be able to provide a hindsight overview for the man himself: if your name is Papp, you must do everything within your power not to present crap.*)
Though unquestionably in no great need of my support or defense (however, when he comes to sweep me off my feet and take me away from all this, it will be nice to be able to point to my constant constancy…) the case presented by Papp regarding Jon’s now infamous appearance on CNN’s Crossfire is so specious as to provide a rather fun opportunity to take it apart piece by, offering it up to Stewart like a daisy game of “He loves me, He loves me not”.
He Loves me…
Papp begins what quickly falls into the category of ill-considered diatribe with an introductory paragraph suggesting that rather than “lecturing on the ills of modern politics and journalism” Jon stick to “what he knows, such as rolling his eyes, mugging in front of a camera and grinning while cracking sarcastic”. It would be too easy simply to suggest Papp leave the media criticism to the media critics, (and think twice before telling a joke at the next dinner party he attends) how about instead opining on the nature of insight and from whence it might spring; quite apart from the mouths of babes, it might just come from an educated (William and Mary College) news junkie with savvy, political connections and an obvious deep and abiding interest in the future of the United States. While covering the political scene for MTV (Stewart’s first foray into political news coverage) might not rate for some as journalistic experience, the truth of the matter is that according to a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey, viewers who watch ‘The Daily Show’ were more likely to answer questions about politics correctly that those who don’t. The ‘monkey’ as Crossfire’s resident right wing wingnut Tucker Carlson calls the Comedy Central host, must be doing something right. Crack wise he may – crack stupid or ill-informed, he does not.
He loves me not…
Papp continues by getting right into the meat of the Crossfire matter by noting surprise at the Stewart who appeared on the show. “…a serious looking moralizer who chided the media and pleaded for elevated public discourse.” How dare he, Papp seemed to be saying, take advantage of the hosts of the CNN ‘debate’ show; they had been expecting a funnyman on to talk about his New York Times #1 best-selling book (‘America – the Book’) and instead were confronted with a critical viewer who questioned both the dubious premise of the show and the way in which it is routinely presented.
I’m not now sure if Papp has ever watched Crossfire – or The Daily Show for that matter. For anyone who has seen Crossfire, Stewart’s comments were on the money not simply because he was playing the hosts at their own game (take no prisoners confrontation) and winning (both Tucker Carlson ‘for the Right!’ and Paul Begala ‘for the Left!’ were shocked practically witless from the opening salvo to the stumbling, fumbling angry extro) but telling a truth that heretofore hasn’t been heard on the cable news network that routinely treats White House press releases like the results of exhaustive investigative journalism. If the shrieking, screaming, epithet throwing, spin-doctoring, and out and out bullshit that dresses itself up and hits the tiles as debate discourse is the place America is supposed to get its news, well, no wonder most Americans still think Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 and that the war in Iraq was justified.
He loves me…
I have to admit, there is one aspect of Stewart’s persona and presentation that rings increasingly untrue – the part where he continues to seemingly denigrate his program as “… a little fake news program that follows a show about puppets making crank phone calls”. The fact is that people answer questions about politics correctly after watching The Daily Show because apart from the obviously silly reporter segments – though with more than a touch of truth, whilst never stinting on the ridiculous – the lead in to the show and interview in the second half is consistently fact-based and insightful, offering viewers not just the admitted left-wing leaning opinions of its host, but respectful detailed and researched interviews with those of the polar-opposite stripe. Conservatives may go on the show for a certain amount of hip factor – playing unashamedly to the folks back home – but they come off having had their subject matter treated with if not dignity, then certainly respect. If they still seem to suck – that is decidedly not Stewart’s fault.
And as for the Democrats – those expecting an easy ride will have to pull up their socks, roll up their sleeves and work on some decent answers; Stewart generally reserves the softballs for personages such as the delightfully giggly Daily Show fan Bishop Desmond Tutu, as well as fellow comedians and various and sundry actors. For Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards – who actually declared his intention to run for President on his first appearance on The Daily Show – to subsequent pols and spin-meisters, the humour may come thick and fast, but so too do the zingers.
Truth be told, Stewart is probably on his last season of aw-shucksing. Not that we’re in any danger of losing our laugh out loud reaction to Daily Show headlines, but the “I’m just a comedian on a funny little show” posturing will have to give way to a more realistic approach, lest Jon be confused with other on camera personalities who breathe and mislead with seeming equal frequency.
He loves me not…
Papp. Again.
In further berating the object of my fevered daydreams for having the temerity to appear in public without his big floppy shoes and shiny red nose, Papp seizes on what he considers to be Stewart’s fundamental misunderstanding of what Crossfire is all about: “Stewart must be the only person who turns to Crossfire hoping for an outbreak of civility.” Uhhh…not so much… as Jon himself would no doubt reply. Clearly what he has been fruitlessly hoping for was an outbreak of something resembling honesty.
When children leap into slanging matches, pinching and pummeling and out-shouting each other in order to demand dibs on the bigger piece of pie, a reasonable outcome would be a bit of disappointment on either side as each requires approximately the accurate half they deserve. On Crossfire, to simply hope that each side’s dislocation from accuracy results in equal misunderstanding for the viewer on both sides is a little sad – and not a little dangerous in a country split right down the middle, with opponents ready and willing to swallow any story that suits their side. (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth anybody? Anybody? Bueller?)
And as for Stewart calling Carlson a 'dick' (not just once - but twice!) the strongest criticism I can think of is that for Stewart it was so uncharacteristically unimaginative; some things are just so obviously plainly, painfully true it seems redundant to say them even once.
He loves me…
But perhaps Papp backs off his position just a touch when he admits “It’s pointless to look here – or anywhere else in the media – for grand truths, or for society to be saved through earnest and elevated debate.” I’m with him on the ‘here’ – his own editorial – but ‘anywhere else’? (And I'm dying to know what take Toronto Star media scribe and fellow Daily Show enthusiast Antonia Zerbisias has on all this...) Are his standards and hopes and faith so low as to preclude at least the desire to sort through the cacophony for a couple of still small voices of reason? I’m not saying Stewart’s is an untrammeled shining piece of perfect journalism, but like the pornography Papp himself compares CNN to, I know a certain naked honesty when I hear it.
He loves me not…
Papp’s last shot (Krapp’s Last Tape?) is to tie this bundle of affronted puffery together with a pat on the head for Stewart with a nod to his role as Fool in the King Lear tradition, and to warn him away from any serious discourse (or call for same) reminding him that “… by preaching a moral lesson he shrinks rather than grows.” I’m not entirely sure how he comes to that conclusion – perhaps he’s seen the notoriously tiny Stewart sans his elevator clown shoes – but I think he makes a grave mistake in warning a blower away from a whistle: no one else has seen fit to stand up and point out the atrocities committed on a daily basis by America’s first source for news; this King Lear was naked, and for the Fool the time for fooling had passed.
If Jon Stewart used all his hard won legitimate news currency on one dead shot across the bows of the SS Crossfire, I thank him for it. Someone had to say it; and Papp is too busy – his eye far off the prize, wasting valuable time trying to flatten the Fool - to do it.
He's gotta love me...
(* Pap – worthless or oversimplified ideas.

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