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The Real U.S. Divide: Can You Handle Satire Or Not?

by Steve Young

Under-30 Crowd Gets News From John Stewart, Not Tom Brokaw

Scott Rubin, Editor-in-chief at National Lampoon, once told me that perfect satire would be something an audience wouldn't know for sure to be satire or serious. Sort of like talk radio. And even though you are looking for the laugh, satire must deal honestly with the topic. Nothing like talk radio.

With the presidential race bearing down for the stretch run Americans are ready to chomp on political red meat. But today, where do you go to get your political news served up fairly?

The networks? Rather, Brokaw, Jennings. Too liberal says Fox News. Fox News? Hume, O'Reilly, Hannity. Too conservative says the networks. Talk radio? Too many to list. Even Bill O'Reilly thinks talk radio is full of deceit and he's on it.

CSPN? Too dull.

CNN? Too many N's.

MSNBC? Hired Michael Savage.

CNBC? Miller and McInroe.

New York Times? Washington Times? Too liberal. Too conservative. Opinion. Polarization. Spin. We're good. You're bad. Bias that only reports the 50 percent of the reality that supports their truth... which is no truth at all.

That's where satire steps in. A good satirist doesn't care about taking sides. Only splitting them. Especially in respect to the most powerful among us. That's why Dennis Miller's decision not to lay a hand on President Bush lost him his membership card to the satire club. Enter Jon Stewart. A fake news host. Funny and arguably the most entertaining interviewer in politics, Stewart has become today's Walter Cronkite. Actually not today's Walter Cronkite, who has been painted as an out of the closet myopic liberal. Stewart is 1974's Walter Cronkite. The most trusted man in America. His "Daily Show" on the Comedy Channel is the most consistently funny show on television. It also just might be the most honest news show, fake OR real.

The United States of Audience has become divided in a way that would make the Civil War jealous, yet the presumably liberal Stewart has captured hearts from both sides of the political aisle. Perhaps that's because he doesn't belittle his audience by dumbing down the material or feeding them dogmatic pabulum. You get the idea the Stewart actually trusts his audience to make their own decisions. No slogan. For real.

Stewart likes to dismiss his show as faux news, not to be taken seriously. But when he does an interview, he knows how to ask a question, like a couple weeks agowhen he asked John Kerry, "WERE YOU OR WERE YOU NOT IN CAMBODIA?" More than a question, it was meant as a cut-to-the-chase commentary on, and jab at, the previous month's ad hominem Swift Boat attacks. Still, how many real newsman or pundits would give their eye teeth to be able to say they asked that question with Kerry sitting in front of them?

When Hannity poses a question to his guest, he does it with such a long litany of points he wants to make, by the time he gets to the actual question I'm surprised the interviewee remembers what it was. That's not an interview, that's harassment.

Most talk show pundits, right and left, interrupt their guests when they're not in sync with their view which turns off half the audience. A satirist doesn't try to WIN the interview. A satirist digs into the very part of a comment where the deception lives. And instead of ripping into the person, he exposes the absurdity of the remark. Entertainingly. Intelligently. Not with a hammer, but with a surgeon's scalpel. Even if you disagree with the point, you have a hard time turning it off if while you're laughing.

Satire is criticism, but the humor used to challenge must be bathed in truth, poking fun while at the same time, presenting honestly the inanity of a situation. More critique than criticism, you hold up the words and thoughts to the light so it becomes clear what is actually being said. With a good satirist, the powerful don't get away with hollow profundities or hypocritical talking points. And, that, ladies and gentlemen, is entertainment.

It's fun (at least in a democracy) attacking the influential and their institutions. You get to expose the pomposity and faults normally hidden by lies and deceit. Jon Stewart is able to do just that while getting to the heart of a politician's real character. He may only get one honest piece of actual insight from an interview, but how many do we get in a real news show?

So, is Stewart's faux news more real than supposedly real news? For his commentary on the 2000 election, Stewart won a real Peabody Award. That's something real newsguy Bill O'Reilly couldn't say and he still has yet to make me laugh...on purpose. And who are you going to trust more with the facts? Someone who makes you angry with his spin or someone who makes you smarter with a laugh?

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Albion Monitor September 17, 2004 (

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