[7 November 2005]
In 1992, when the 24-hour news cycle was virtually owned by CNN, Neil Postman and Steve Powers wrote about “information glut.” As media outlets proliferate, Postman and Powers argued in How to Watch TV News, the amount of news worth reporting remains roughly constant. When “news” includes both the latest Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt rumors and analysis of the Valerie Plame leak case, a vital sense of proportion and context is lost. “News” becomes anything new, regardless of its import. Information ubiquity, paradoxically, leaves us less knowledgeable about the world. We collect sound bites and trivia, but rarely do these add up to big-picture wisdom.
Postman and Powers didn’t quite imagine the next step: the crusading, populist champion who delivers such wisdom in an entertaining, easy-to-swallow way. Rush Limbaugh is the obvious prototype, though he was on radio, not tv. His witty, artfully delivered rhetoric never undercuts his sense of righteous indignation. Limbaugh’s success spawned numerous imitators. Version 2.0 of the besieged patriot-journalist took to television in the form of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity (both of whom maintain strong radio presences as well).
How to Watch TV News’ suggestion for relieving information glut—“Reduce by one third the number of opinions you feel obligated to have”—is anathema to these gentlemen, whose “newstainment” shows don’t blur the line between news and editorial so much as actively dismantle it.
Into this process now steps Enter Stephen Colbert, former senior correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He means to dismantle the dismantlers. As he puts it, he’s fighting for the “heroes” who watch his show, the very people Hannity calls “great Americans.” If you find the world confusing and scary, yet still feel obligated to be “informed” about it, you can accept Colbert’s authority as he quiets your doubts: “Shhh! Daddy’s gonna tell you all you need to know.” Like his self-serious counterparts at Fox News and CNN, Colbert claims authority through bombast and an overwhelming belief in his own sincerity. After all, “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” It’s not the head that recognizes truth; it’s the gut.
To that end—the relentless pursuit of gut-level “truth”—Colbert discards the usual tools of inquiry. In the first episode’s opening monologue (a regular feature called “The Word”), he smugly asserted his own emotional authority: “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart,” as a slick-looking graphic appears onscreen, reading, “Reference books high and mighty.” Mimicking the anti-empirical approach favored by the “Education President,” Colbert offers his own antic faith.
Colbert’s outsized persona is only slightly more absurd than those of his targets. In order to sustain their self-assumed expertise in a world gone mad, they ooze the certainty and pomposity of the solipsist. They are always underdogs, regardless of the reach of their message (The O’Reilly Factor, with a just-under-three-million nightly audience, has been the top-rated cable news program for over 200 weeks), because only they have grasped the true nature of reality. Join them, along with members of “The Colbert Nation,” and you too can sup of their wisdom.
This, of course, is not news as information, but news as palliative: it feeds a need for dramatic conflict while giving viewers a feeling of control. In the “No-Spin Zone,” one feels solidarity. Where journalistic objectivity (an idea openly mocked in Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” slogan) might challenge viewers, Colbert’s targets specialize in the sort of groupthink that pervades the boardrooms of Enron and Global Crossing (whose optimistic stock reports papered over looming bankruptcies) and the White House (whose current occupants have washed their hands of what one senior administration official calls “the reality-based community”).
Where The Daily Show parodies the ineptitude and the go-along-to-get-along attitude of those in the corporate media, The Colbert Report satirizes those who rail against the “elite liberal media.” They withdraw into a cocoon of self-delusion, and in discarding the product of news-gathering agencies, they’ve also discarded the process of gathering news, with its antiquated dependence on facts, evidence, and logic.
These “hosts” greet their loyal viewers with the declaration, “This program is dedicated to you, the heroes. And who are the heroes? The people who watch this show.” Rest assured that, whatever inconvenient realities may creep into the show, your host will deftly maneuver around them, concluding on a note of cathartic uplift. There will be no unsettling dreams after an evening with Stephen Colbert, or Bill O’Reilly, or Sean Hannity.
What The Colbert Report ridicules, then, is our tendency to listen most closely to those with whom we agree, whose shining unrealities make us feel good. Worse, it underlines that tendency as, if not the most dominant media force in our culture, then certainly one of the most virulent. In doing so, it, in the best traditions of comedy, reveals a truth that is both absurd and, upon reflection, a little sad.