Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Meshugge News

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or to cry.

Last November, once it was apparent that Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin was to live out its life only in re-run history on YouTube, many predicted a dearth of satire. Who were we going to laugh and poke fun at now that W was out of office and McCain and Palin weren’t going to be front and center to throw pies at?

As became evident, when the world turned upside-down and the market split in two, the one throwing pies (and bulls and other toys) turned out to be Jim Cramer, the supposed history guru on CNBC. But in Bizarro-world, the one doggedly reporting the financial mess and holding the press accountable — and Cramer’s feet to the fire — turned out to be comedian/“The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.

With the fall of once great news icons that focused their lens on corruption and shenanigans (think CBS’s eye), and once great newspapers that dug out the facts to find falsehoods, it’s fallen on comedians to uncover and report the news.

CNBC was/is supposed to be a news network. Granted no one mistook Cramer for a journalist, but how many other news networks have their share of Cramers? This is a small indication of a larger trend. When newsrooms are cut to the bone and investigative reporters are sent packing, whose eye is watching?

Indeed with newsroom staffs set free, comedians like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, who trails him nightly on Comedy Central, have come to the rescue as journalism and news reporting go AWOL. Through a glass darkly, they’ve become the seers, the truth tellers and another warped lens on the world.

Stewart’s line to Cramer on March 12 encapsulated the irony: “Look, we’re both snake-oil salesmen to a certain extent, but we do label the show as snake oil here. Isn’t there a problem selling snake oil as vitamin tonic?”

Stewart’s show has been called “fake news,” and everyone knows it. Although Cramer’s never was given the adjective “fake,” it’s news wrapped in entertainment. Either way, with a dearth of investigative news reporting, a hungry public seeks out information any way it can, and with news becoming more like entertainment and vice-versa, we were bound to have a smackdown.

By the time this reaches print, the hoopla over the match may be over, which also is indicative of the predicament. Like a fast-changing comic repertory company, with the multiplicity of media options and viewing choices, the public sees it, shares it, laughs and moves on to the next scene change.

In fact, two days after Cramer was eviscerated by Stewart, HBO aired a live broadcast of Will Ferrell in “You’re Welcome America/A Final Night With George W. Bush.”

In this case, the comedian began to set the record straight on the legacy of our 43rd president. As one of the first out of the post-Bush gate with a take on his presidency, Ferrell is likely to have set a course for historians to follow.

Ever since Aristophanes, comedians have held sway over the shape of history. In his “Clouds,” for example, the Greek playwright lampoons Socrates, portraying him as the arch-Sophist who runs educational cult called the “Thinkery.”

Today the Thinkery could be replaced as the Punditocracy, with satirists like Ferrell and Stewart lampooning and shaping our perceptions of the windbags.

The difference, however, is television, Internet and the like are all garbled together, one medium commenting on another in talmudic fashion, leaving us to peel away the onion layers to determine what’s truth and what’s fiction.

To butcher McLuhan’s famous aphorism: The medium is meshugge.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bagel Flambé

It all began with a bagel. In my last column I spoke of the inspiration I got from my first class at the Darrell D. Friedman Institute by realizing the connection I had with Judah Maccabee.

Now the bagel is complete. Our class had a siyyum.

Siyyum means completion. However, I was informed by one of my co-fellows in the STAR program that the Hebrew word begins with the letter Samech and ends in a Final Mem. Both are round, circular-like letters — kind of like a bagel. Where do they begin and where do they end?

With an election and inauguration still fresh in our collective conscience, it is indeed a new beginning. After a year of hearing about “change” though, I think we’re ready to say, “Enough of the change, already!” In fact, I could use a little stability. I’d be happy if the stocks would just hold steady.

Yet perhaps an important element we missed, when all of us were ready for change, is that change is constant. That may sound like a cliché, but if we think about it, it’s also inherent in the meaning of siyyum’s circuitous lettering.

In class each morning we read a parshah from Exodus. No other portion of the Torah is more representative of change than Exodus — leaving one world and entering another. Also interesting is that in it God often takes the form of fire.

Now as a former philosophy major and an ad man, too, that wasn’t lost on me. In fact, I came across a book that incorporates both callings — “The Philosophy of Branding.” In chapter one, the focus is on Heraclitus, who was a Pre-Socratic. His greatest perception was that the world is continually in flux, and to demonstrate this he uses a flame as a metaphor. A flame being a “thing,” but not the same thing from moment to moment.

Judaism, too, uses the flame, and its symbol for many occasions, from Shabbat to yahrzeit, and even the ner tamid connotes this same notion of continuity — eternal.

So if that’s a symbol of our creed, what does a flame need to survive and to grow and to be strong?

Well, it needs air. All kinds of air. Especially new, fresh air.

But oxygen that’s too pure can be dangerous. Likewise, Judaism needs a blend and needs to have a breath from outside of itself to live and spread and catch.

Can either extreme be dangerous — too pure or not pure enough? Sure. So we must all tend the flame.

What I also learned from the siyyum is, like so many Jewish holidays — from Simchat Torah, when we end and then begin the Torah, or Rosh Hashanah, when we end the year and celebrate the new — is that the beat goes on.

We mark the occasions, but they don’t end there.

And like that flame, built into Judaism is a richness of thinking and knowledge that we offer back to the world for it to soak up its rays.

Likewise, there’s a lesson for America, too. As we go through our economic crisis, there’ll be a tendency to smother ourselves off. But as Tom Friedman has pointed out, we became the wealthiest country in the world not by protectionism or fearing free trade. Rather, we invited the smartest most diverse ideas and people into the U.S. and it is they who fueled our growth.

I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to be a part of the DFI and the STAR program, and I can’t wait to breathe air back into it to help continue the flame.

And so, thank you Cindy Goldstein for agreeing to meet me for a bagel that morning in Mount Washington.

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES. More of his work is at abenovick.com.