A few weeks ago, Princeton philosophy Prof. Harry Frankfurt appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart to talk about his new book “On Bullshit.” An odd title for tenured faculty to be promoting on the late-night circuit, Frankfurt spent his 15
minutes lecturing Stewart, giving his academic take on the phenomenon colloquially known as bullshit.
But after six years at the helm of his Emmy-winning show, no one needs to explain to Stewart what bullshit smells like.
Stewart and his cohorts on the Daily Show are experts in the subject. They comb the news for it. For the most outrageous half-truth. The most egregious spin. The absurd, broken-down moments in politics and society. Each weeknight, Stewart is equal part tour guide and ringmaster, leading his audience through a carefully crafted 30-minute montage, a veritable highlight reel of a day’s worth of unadulterated bullshit.
The final product has transcended mere comedy: A shocking number of Americans, especially young Americans, claim to “get” their news from “The Daily Show.” A Pew Center poll taken during last year’s presidential campaign found that a shocking 21 percent of 18-to-29 year-olds cited the show as a source for election news — only slightly less than the 23 percent who cited the ABC, NBC or CBS networks.
This is to say nothing of the poor guys at MSNBC and CNN, who aside from getting their collective asses routinely handed to them by the good ol’ boys over at FOX, are now in a ratings race with a show that frequently uses the word “douchebag” to describe prominent world leaders.
But it would be a mistake to think that “The Daily Show” rose to prominence on sarcasm and the use of the word “douchebag.” On Saturday, I was in Detroit to see Stewart perform his stand-up act at the Detroit Opera House. “The Daily Show” is funny, but humor could not fully explain the sort of ovation that Stewart received when he hit the stage. Every person in the audience, myself included, seemed to be captivated in a way that struck me as very atypical for a comedy show.
For moderate Americans, particularly moderate Democrats, he is no mere comedian. Stewart and his show have become a nightly confirmation for many that:
a) Yes, Much of what is said in the media, in Congress and at White House press conferences is pure bullshit and;
b) Yes, There is someone doing something about it.
This can be a very powerful realization, especially for a liberal minority that by now can’t help but feel a little powerless. For nearly two decades, the moderate left has been losing political and ideological ground to the Radical Right. Its message has been obscured, its traditional bases of support have melted away and its once-proud party has been castrated by the politico-religious bullshit of the increasingly radicalized time in which we live.
But that’s not even the worst of it. The first and last line of defense against the caustic effect of bullshit on the national discourse, a free and investigative press, has become a sham. A scandal. A shame. Overly-simplistic rhetoric has gone unchallenged. The coverage, particularly of the war in Iraq, has been full of secondhand accounts and often void of context.
And, out of fear of losing their access or fear of a public backlash (maybe both?), mainstream media have become startlingly acceptant of government meddling and false rhetoric. Examples abound: allegations that the Bush Administration has paid reporters for favorable coverage, the failure to effectively challenge prewar intelligence claims and continued media acceptance of heavily restricted access to combat units in Iraq are all black marks on the record of contemporary media in serving the public interest.
These guys are supposed to be the bullshit screen, filtering out and exposing the white lies, the outright lies and everything in between. What have they become? A selfish, scared self-absorbed business. And as the mouthpiece of reason has been silenced, moderates nationwide have become powerless to challenge the misleading rhetoric of a vocal few.
But on “The Daily Show,” bullshit is bullshit again. Stewart has, in some small way, taken up the fight abandoned by the Democrats and the media and given a voice back to those disgusted by the debate in this country.
No moment was as pivotal in this transition from comedy to advocacy as when Stewart sat down next to Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson on the CNN debate show “Crossfire” last fall, and gave Carlson the sort of on-the-air tongue-lashing that would make Bill O’Reilly blush. He got in Carlson’s face and exposed as false and damaging the back-and-forth oratory of the cable debate format. He so thoroughly embarrassed Carlson that soon after he was let go by the network. In silencing Carlson and shaming Begala, Stewart had done what I and millions of pissed-off moderates could not — strike a definitive blow against the bullshit factory crippling the national debate.
Looking around at the audience Saturday, I got the impression that those in attendance weren’t there to get a few laughs — they were there to see one of the few men left in America who knows bullshit and calls it by its first name.
Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.