Archive for October 30th, 2009

Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Name in News?

Wednesday night was an indication of how a satirist and comedian has been able to outflank serious journalists in earning a reputation of integrity.   Stewart had two Mideast activists on his show, a Jewish human rights activist Anna Baltzer and a Palestinian pro-democracy advocate Mustafa Barghouti.   Their message: the way to peace in Palestine is through diplomacy and non-violent reconciliation.   They criticized Israel for creating the problem through its long repression of the Palestinians, and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  They suggested that such conditions certainly can inspire extremist reactions.   They spoke of reason and non-violence.

At the time I didn’t realize I was watching something extremely controversial.   In fact, I graded papers, thinking the “good” part of the show was over.   Only this morning do I read that pro-Israel groups are incensed, angry that Stewart wasn’t “fair and balanced” enough to have a hardline Israel proponent on the show, and calling for a boycott of the Daily Show.

Before taping, the Daily Show and the two guests were pressured to cancel and not go on.   It was clear that powerful forces did not want this discussion to air on US television, and if the station involved had been CNN, FOX or MSNBC, it certainly would not have.   The mainstream stations would have wilted under pressure and threats from pro-Israeli voices, feeling forced to talk about “Palestinian suicide bombers” and focus on this as a conflict that must be settled by one side “winning.”   Such a discussion would not be allowed, it would risk advertising dollars and generate negative publicity.

Yet the myth of “fair and balanced” news is more poisonous to accurate reporting than even the real existence of bias.  Consider: if someone is talking about the holocaust, does one need to have a holocaust denier present to have the news be fair and balanced?   If one is interviewing a free marketeer does one have to have a Communist present to rebut the points?   If you interview survivors of 9-11, are you required to have Islamic extremists present the pro-terrorism viewpoint in order to have balance?   No, I’m not saying Israel’s position is akin to any of these, only that the idea of ‘fair and balanced’ is really always a biased and subjective call.   The range of ‘acceptible positions’ is relatively narrow, and it is not at all uncommon to leave out many perspectives.

Jon Stewart is Jewish.   One of his guests was Jewish, the other Palestinian.   Could it be that the Israeli hardliners are really upset about the fact that a perspective friendly to the concerns of the Palestinians is being put forth by Jews?   Does that perhaps risk undercutting the myth that there are only two points of view, the Jewish and the Palestinian, and that the question is whether terrorism is worse than Israeli security actions?   Is the real threat the reframing of the debate, meaning that the pro-Israel side can’t frame it in a way favorable to themselves?

Perhaps one way to be fair and balanced is to consider different ways of framing a debate.   It can be a Jew and a Palestinian discussing ways to peacefully solve the problem, or it can be Jews and Palestinians arguing about who is more to blame.   In the former, violence is seen as misguided form both sides, and each are called to take steps to bring a peaceful resolution to the problem.   In the latter, you have to choose which side’s violence is legitimate by deciding which kind of violence is worse.  In the former, both can work together for mutual benefit.  In the latter, one side must win and the other side lose.

If the mainstream media stays “fair and balanced” by going with the latter perspective without taking into account the Barghouti-Baltzer perspective, isn’t Stewart doing the public a service by showing the other perspective, one generally silenced by the mainstream media?   Isn’t the courage to do so in the face of massive pressure from those who want to shape the public framing of the debate something we want from our newspeople?   Why do they not provide it, why do we rely on our satirists?   This isn’t the first time I’ve made this point about Stewart’s contribution, I also brought it up when he had his monumental interview with Jim Cramer.

Yet it may seem odd that an academic whose methodology has involved analyzing media (the subject matter has been German foreign policy) should promote a comedian to the status of the most trusted name in news.   Jon Stewart is not truly a journalist nor a newsperson.    He should not be the most trusted name in news, and if pushed I’m sure I could find a number of serious journalists who do dig and are unafraid of pressure; indeed, most news anchors are not true journalists but good looking hosts.   Still, Stewart does seem to show the hypocrisies and dis-ingenuity of politicians of all stripes in a way most mainstream journalists do not.

He mocks the way the mainstream news media covered a so-called “Obama war on Fox,” and then juxtaposed a Cal Thomas condemnation of Obama for trying to silence the media with un-American pressure with praise he gave a year earlier for the Bush Administration’s similar attack on MSNBC.  If only the mainstream media would out hypocrisy so clearly — and Stewart shows no mercy to the Democrats on such things either.

The problem seems to be that the news media is caught in a voyeuristic effort to present different narratives without seriously trying to investigate the internal coherence and evidential support of each one.    They bow to pressure prefer a ‘he said, she said’ reporting to ‘what might be wrong with what each of them said.’   The result?   People trust a comedian more than their news media for understanding current events.  And, as much as I enjoy Jon Stewart, we shouldn’t have to leave it up to our satirists and comedians to help us critically assess world events.

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