Should America be in on the joke?

Stephen Colbert, left, backs the March to Keep Fear Alive, while Jon Stewart favors his Rally to Restore Sanity. Can satire help darn the frayed fabric of American society? Will we become more engaged or apathetic?

Associated Press

Stephen Colbert, left, backs the March to Keep Fear Alive, while Jon Stewart favors his Rally to Restore Sanity. Can satire help darn the frayed fabric of American society? Will we become more engaged or apathetic?

It's an idea that's already been endorsed by David Letterman, Arianna Huffington and the president of the United States, Barack Obama.

But even as Daily Show mastermind Jon Stewart talks up his Oct. 30 Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall — and mock grouses about fellow Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert's "competing" March to Keep Fear Alive demonstration the same day — I wondered: What exactly will they do there?

Will we mostly see Serious Stewart, the guy who took down CNN's Crossfire with a single, searing confrontation? (The show was canceled after he told the hosts their partisan bickering was "hurting America.")

Or is this all a grand bit of performance art, highlighting the absurdity of this election's increasing extremism — and traditional media's complicity in enabling it — with a spectacle of satire that even the audience can participate in?

Toss in Colbert's recent, intermittently serious appearance before Congress and you must wonder: Can these guys pull off what a devalued, increasingly compromised and sometimes bitterly partisan media structure cannot?

Can a concentrated dose of satire save America?

"People are lamenting that these comedians are playing this role, but a better use of energy might be lamenting that our politics and media have reached the point where this is necessary," said Danna Young, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware.

"Stewart and Colbert are necessary because … they're not just saying 'Let's question the content of politics,' " she added. "They're saying 'Let's question whether the way we experience the political world makes sense.' "

What we don't know for sure yet is what Stewart wants us to do after we ask the question.

Amusing ourselves to death?

Before the last words of Stewart's hilarious monologue announcing the Rally to Restore Sanity left his lips, I was already thinking of Neil Postman.

Postman, a media critic and author who died in 2003, wrote the book on how America's obsession with entertainment would eventually overwhelm serious news and political thought — a sobering 1985 tome called Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Back then, Postman's bogeyman was television, a device he felt would drown serious subjects in a flood of the trivial and entertaining. But even he couldn't have imagined how the Internet's firehose of media would make his long-ago predictions look like a text from Nostradamus.

"I think it's interesting that Jon Stewart is getting more serious at the same time that (CNN anchor) Rick Sanchez is … well, you can finish that sentence yourself," said satirist Andy Borowitz of Sanchez, fired Friday amid controversy over a satellite radio interview where he called Stewart a "bigot," implied Jewish people run CNN and mocked the notion that Jews could be an oppressed minority.

A proud survivor of the TV industry himself — Borowitz created the Will Smith sitcom the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air eons ago — he also noted the Stewart/Colbert rallies fall before the Nov. 8 debut of Conan O'Brien's late night show on TBS, allowing them to dominate the news cycle ahead of a direct competitor's splashy debut.

"You watch MSNBC and CNN and they're so envious of (Stewart and Colbert's impact) they're all cracking jokes," he added. "I've been on a million panels with academics talking about blurring lines, but that's not new. The only thing that's different is mainstream TV news is so degraded, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have more credibility."

This mess seems rooted in an understandable plea from the audience for news outlets to dump objectivity and make some obvious conclusions. Or, as a friend put it once, "call BS."

Consider a Gallup poll released Wednesday showing that, for the fourth straight year, a majority of Americans (57 percent) say they have little or no trust in mass media to report the news fully and accurately. But, at the same time, we're spending more time with news than ever before — a record 70 minutes each day across TV, print and online, according to a poll released last month by the Pew Research Center.

Enter Stewart and Colbert, alongside slightly more conventional pundits such as Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, earning trust by speaking truths to viewers, preferably in line with how they see the world. Facing audiences in the clothing of journalists, clad in suits and ties behind an anchor desk, Stewart and O'Reilly have gained journalistic credibility so completely that they have landed at the top of polls listing the nation's most trusted newsmen.

When the stewards of this trust are intellectually honest like Colbert and Stewart — presenting facts fairly and not twisting or discounting important information that contradicts their points — then such truths become powerful tools to cut through the absurdities of modern political life.

But when they aren't, like Fox News' Glenn Beck and his history-twisting demonization of progressives, we're all left with a morass of ethically challenged media pushing any button necessary to earn our allegiance.

"As long as there's a consumer model underlying the news — news media needing to generate a profit — we're going to have the news looking like what (the audience) wants," said the University of Delaware's Young. "Are you going to choose spinach over chocolate cake? At least Jon Stewart feeds the audience chocolate cake with pureed lima beans and spinach inside."

If we still don't get it

Last year, a Ohio State University study found Colbert (who hosts his show as a character, playing an egotistical, overblown conservative pundit), offered satire vague enough that viewers perceived the jokes differently, depending on their own political values.

Liberals saw a comic lampooning self-important conservatives. Conservatives saw a satire of liberal excesses.

"There's a filter that happens on the subconscious level; you need to justify your own stance in these issues by identifying with the host," said Heather LaMarre, who conducted the Ohio State study and bristled at some reporters' attempts to imply conservatives who saw Colbert as an ally simply weren't smart enough to get the joke.

"Colbert stays in character all the time, so people aren't quite sure of his message," she said. "Especially when you're not talking about regular viewers, it's not clear who the butt of his jokes is."

Presumably, if Stewart and Colbert's rally stunts work, enough people will reject the projections of fear and division coming from politicians and media that both politics and media will improve. But even as these two try to save us from ourselves, LaMarre's study suggests we may be too stuck in our own political prejudices to understand.

Something tells me there's a part of their dark comic hearts that might find that the funniest joke of all.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.

Should America be in on the joke? 10/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 2, 2010 5:30am]

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