Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Faint Praise
A piece in today's paper asks the question: "Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?" The feature, while well done, is essentially a valentine to The Daily Show, and says pretty much what you'd expect it to say. Though this was interesting:

When Americans were asked in a 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press to name the journalist they most admired, Mr. Stewart, the fake news anchor, came in at No. 4, tied with the real news anchors Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw of NBC, Dan Rather of CBS and Anderson Cooper of CNN.

Here's the original poll; the fact that Katie Couric, who's proven herself a rather lousy journalist, and Bill O'Reilly, who's no more (and arguably less) a journalist than I am, got the most votes suggests that maybe this isn't something we should take all that seriously.

Later in the day, I read this typically eviscerating post from Glenn Greenwald, which I think gets at why Stewart might be held in higher regard than his more "respected" peers. Greenwald starts by recounting comments made in an online chat earlier this week by Michael Abromowitz, the Washington Post White House reporter; asked to name some of his "favorite people at the White House who are not in the spotlight," Abromowitz immediately launched into rhapsodic praise of the "lower-level press aides" in the White House press office and others at the deputy staff level with whom he's become close, before taking pains to mention that the individuals he named are "extremely discreet, so it's not like anyone is really dishing on the president!" This doesn't sit well with Greenwald--as, of course, it shouldn't:

That sounds like a really fun and playful circle of friends -- just a great, great group of people -- and Abramowitz seems to derive much satisfaction from being able to be a part of it. Only a curmudgeon -- or some shrill, angry Leftist type that just doesn't understand How Journalism Works -- would begrudge Abramowitz his fun.

But, in theory at least, White House press officials are the principal impediments to a White House reporter's being able to do his job. The core function of the White House press officials with whom Abramowitz loves to "hang out" and of whom he is obviously so fond is to manipulate his reporting in favor of the White House, to conceal or distort facts that are incriminating of the President, to disseminate narratives that promote the Government's goals. That's true in general, and particularly so for the most secretive and manipulative White House in modern American history. For that reason, healthy "watchdog" journalism would dictate that such officials are viewed with suspicion, that the relationship would be far more adversarial than affectionate, that reporters would speak of such officials dispassionately rather than gushing with the kind of personal praise one generally reserves for one's dearest friends and closest colleagues.

He goes on to remind us that the investigation into the Valerie Plame leak revealed how Dick Cheney's office routinely used "Meet the Press," hosted by the late Tim Russert, which a Cheney staffer referred to as "our best format." Greenwald adds:

Just think about what that meant: the single greatest source of government disinformation and corruption in America -- Dick Cheney's office -- viewed Tim Russert as the most pliable and effective instrument for disseminating their propaganda to the country. That's not media critics or rabble-bloggers saying that. That was the view of Russert which Dick Cheney's office had -- and understandably so.

And yet -- or, more accurately, "therefore" -- it's the very same pliant instrument of government disinformation -- Tim Russert -- who was viewed more or less unanimously by the media class as being the embodiment of everything that a Good Journalist should be. The very same person who -- by Dick Cheney's own assessment -- served most eagerly as a propaganda tool for the political class was simultaneously viewed by his colleagues as the Consummate Journalist. If you wanted to prove how subservient our establishment media is to the Government, would it be possible to invent better evidence than that?

It's never nice to speak ill of the dead, and Russert was probably no more culpable here than most nationally prominent print or broadcast journalists. But the point helps explain why we no longer hold any journalist in the same regard that Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley or Edward R. Murrow once enjoyed. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show might not be the ideal vehicle for news, but certainly over the last eight years we haven't had to worry about their being spun by the government or compromised in "reporting" because of personal ties to administration officials.

Critics of The Daily Show on the right could argue that Stewart and his writers are liberals, and their bias comes through in what makes it on the air. I agree that they're liberals, but I think he's equally tough on Democratic officials and liberal-leaning guests as he is on those with more right-wing perspectives. Now that public affairs is such an integral part of the show (as it wasn't, to my knowledge, during the one year he hosted while Bill Clinton was still in office), the test will be if he trains the same level of skepticism and mockery on a Democratic president as he has on Bush. My guess (and hope) is that if given the opportunity by the electorate, he will--and if this is borne out, he might garner even more respect.


Feral said...

I'm just glad he was able to live up to the high journalistic water mark set by his predecessor and mentor, the great Craig Kilborn. His strong guiding voice still echoes through the chambers of the Show (moment of Zen!).

David said...

Kilborn was also the host of the "feel-good" installment of "Sportscenter" back in the day. Truly a pioneer!