Fake show, real book

Almost two years ago, I had a little debate with a friend about whether dissent by propaganda-style entertainers like Michael Moore could be truly influential. My friend argued, essentially, that clowns don’t threaten the establishment because, at the end of the day, nobody really takes them seriously. This was before Moore released Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11. Still, the point holds. It says something scary about the United States that more and more people are turning to Jon Stewart’s fake newscast, The Daily Show, than to legitimate news shows. This doesn’t mean they take him seriously; it may just mean there’s no one left on the networks whom they can.

There does seem to be an increasingly serious war between American satirists and the country’s impenetrably lame network media. Stewart’s pre-election appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, in which he scathingly but earnestly mocked its partisan “debate” formula, may be something like the conflict’s Boston Tea Party. Will Stewart’s evisceration of Tucker Carlson remain in our memories as one lone, memorable point for the clowns? Who knows? But one thing’s clear: Carlson didn’t see it coming, and he should have. Stewart was there to promote America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, in which his contempt for Crossfire and the network parade of pundits is no secret.

Structured like a parody of a high-school history textbook, the book is so often on the mark in its satire of American history, institutions and self-centeredness that it may very well end up being used by some high-school teacher this year. If so, we can expect the kind of controversy that arose when Wal-Mart decided to stop selling the book last month, ostensibly because of naked pictures of the elderly pasted beneath the heads of the Supreme Court judges (only noticed weeks after the book’s release—but that’s a different story).

The book’s most intelligent and deliberate attacks come in Chapter 7, “The Media: Democracy’s Valiant Vulgarians.” From its two-page multicolored illustrations of “The Brain of the Pundit” to a brilliantly nasty description of the relationship between media and Washington, it’s hard to believe Carlson even skimmed this book before interviewing Stewart.

Could he have read the following paragraph? “When disputes on policy do arise, the two political parties provide the media with analysts that can argue the issue from the only two valid points of view, ‘right’ and ‘left.’ These disputes are settled graciously in media forums such as Crossfire, Hardball, and Fuck You with Pat Buchanan and Bill Press. In return for help killing time, the media agrees not to analyze the truthfulness of the debate, only which team seems to be winning. Without the input of concerned politicians and the briny think tanks they float in, today’s journalists would be hamstrung by research demands and unable to provide the speculation we’ve come to rely on.”

If Carlson speculated that this was going to be an easy, funny segment of Crossfire, he speculated wrong. Again and again and again, he compared Crossfire to The Daily Show, missing the issue like a 6-year-old going up to bat. The Daily Show isn’t journalism. Neither is Crossfire, but it pretends to be. Paradoxically, because of sharp focusing every night on the huge disconnect between America’s reality and America’s distorted perception of reality (fostered by partisan pundits), Americans may very well be getting more truth from the country’s fake talk shows than from its authentic ones.

And so, we have a fake history book that may indeed lead Americans closer to the truth than do the books it mocks. Will satirists be able to penetrate the denial that serious, honest, hardworking journalists can’t? History will have to be the judge (clothes optional).