Monday, November 1, 2010

David Carr on Jon Stewart and the Media

I agree with David Carr on this, but only a little bit:

"I enjoy Mr. Stewart in his regular seat where he is less reasonable, less interested in obvious targets and less willing to suggest that all political ideas and movements are like kindergartners, worthy of understanding and respect if only the media would get out of the way. His barrage against the news media Saturday stemmed from the fact that, on this day, attacking the message would have been bad manners, so he stuck with the messengers."

It's true the "Rally to Restore Sanity" seemed oddly lacking in a point-of-view -- something you can't usually say about "The Daily Show." But it's too easy for journalists to take the "oh he's just blaming the messengers" route in examining the state of our country's affairs. Stewart's done a first-rate job of analyzing and exposing how cable news trafficks in sensationalism and false equivalencies -- the words "breaking news" have become incredibly devalued over the last decade.

Carr knows that, but points out: "In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans." No big deal, in other words. But: walk into any congressman or senator's office -- or hell, walk into the White House -- and you'll more-than-likely find a TV turned on to Fox or MSNBC or (less likely) CNN. In some cases you'll find all three. Bizarrely, it's cable TV that is shaping the elite's view of the public discourse, and the elite returns the favor by going on cable TV around the clock to yell and call names. Karl Rove isn't on Fox every week because it's unimportant.

Reducing the cable TV audience to its numbers also ignores the multiplier effect: the opinions that viewers form in response to their TVs are the opinions they share with their family, friends and neighbors. It's why Glenn Beck, whose audience isn't that large in relation to the national population, is such an outsized influence in Tea Party circles. Or think about Rick Santelli's famous "Tea Party" rant: Who the hell ever heard of Rick Santelli before that rant? Can you even measure CNBC's audience? And yet who would deny that rant had a catalyzing effect in propelling the creation of the Tea Party movement? And do you think, say, Mike Castle or Ron Wyden think that movement was negligible in their own election losses?

Carr's right: we shouldn't rush to blame the media for problems that exist independently of them. But we can blame the media -- and cable TV in particular -- for normalizing screaming polarization: It's what sells best! Carr lets the messengers off too easily.

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