Friday, February 15, 2013

Jon Stewart gets it right, sort of

Jon Stewart spent a good share of a recent show poking well-deserved fun at CNN for its round-the-clock coverage of an icky but otherwise safe dead-in-the-water Carnival cruise ship while many more important things were going on around the world.

Watch the clip (then come back to me): Daily Show clip

Point taken. But there's a reason why Stewart is doing essentially a comedy show instead of a real news magazine -- we live in the Age of Entertainment, and he recognizes, as do CNN, Fox and the rest of the cable world, that Americans won't sit still for serious news any more. So, CNN sends helicopters out to stricken leisure vessels instead of following what's happening in the world's hot spots. CNN, like Stewart, has to pay the bills, and interviews with the secretary general of the United Nations won't do that.

It's really not CNN's fault, nor is it Stewart's. We want to be entertained, not informed. Stewart actually does pretty well at accomplishing both, but he's the first to admit that his goal is not to commit journalism. From his perch, he gets to poke fun at CNN while engaging in the very thing he derides. He gets a pass, though, because his stated goal is to be funny while CNN ostensibly wants to be seen as a serious news organization. Pity them for that.

You have to assume that Wolf Blitzer, who once ducked bombs in Baghdad, cringes every time he has to say, "And now, let's have an update on that Carnival cruise ship, where people are eating onion sandwiches and pooping into Baggies." He's a serious-minded news guy (perhaps to a fault), but there's no doubt that the beast that is the American appetite for entertainment must be fed. It also must piss him off more than a little to be the target of potty humor from Jon Stewart, who, as I've said, gets to do the very thing he is making fun of.

Stewart, in other words, is in a can't-lose situation while Blitzer (despite his awesome name) and CNN are in a can't-win deal. If they focus on hard news, they quickly lose viewers and become irrelevant. If they do goofy things like circle a stricken cruise ship in a helicopter "reuniting" loved ones who haven't seen each other for all of six days, they are not serious journalists.

One of the most telling things about Stewart's CNN monologue was that his funniest line went over the heads of his audience. His comparison to the Shackleton expedition drew only a polite giggle or two, largely, I suspect, because no one had heard of Shackleton. In case my better-informed readers need a refresher, the Shackleton expedition got caught in Antarctic sea ice in 1915. What followed was a harrowing yearlong marooning during which no one died. The people on the Carnival ship were made terribly uncomfortable, but, well, you see the point Stewart was trying to make.

Meanwhile, let's check in at HuffPo, which wants to be seen as a serious journalism-based web site. At least Arianna has eliminated the "Celebrity Skin" page, although it's not uncommon to see photos of "wardrobe malfunctions" leading the site's most popular links. Today, things are relatively substantive by comparison; the top three stories are a non-existent feud between Brian Williams and his network, some sassy questioning of bank regulators by Elizabeth Warren (HuffPo's favorite person for some time now, unless Kim Kardashian lets a nipple show), and breaking news that a hamburger joint once visited by President Obama is closed.

HuffPo is making an effort to be taken seriously, but Ms. Huffington understands that she has to feed the beast.

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