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.