e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


"you're hurting America...stop"

Jon Stewart got much-deserved attention during the last presidential campaign when he spoke those words to Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. Stewart summarized what's wrong with the cable news model of political discourse: take two partisan hacks and let them shout talking points at each other.

I thought of Stewart's famous appearance on Hardball as I read about MSNBC firing Keith Olbermann from his anchor job. I haven't watched Olbermann much, so I'm not going to say he's a hack, but certainly I've seen enough to recognize his comfortable place within that cable news paradigm. He yells. He goes for the easy laugh. He rehearses soundbites. He doesn't do much to acnowledge the spaces between (or, for that matter, farther to the right and the left of) the positions of the two parties. Democrats, good. Republicans, bad. Me, Tarzan. You, Jane.

That's not political discourse. A wide spectrum of ideas exists. That means, there are more than just two positions on issues. There are more than just "I like Obama" and "I don't like Obama." Pointing that out is not a call for whitebread, moderate politics, or for the removal of antagonism and dissent and argument from the public sphere. We need MORE of those things. But the arguing and antagonizing needs to come from a spectrum of voices. Not just two.

Even the reaction to Olbermann's demotion fits into the too-neat, black-and-white, pro-con trap. Democrats see it as an attack on their guy and bemoan that they don't have their answer to FoxNews. Republicans see the story (or rather FRAME the story) as comeuppance to the liberal, out-of-touch media.

Part of the problem is that the left wants to innovate by imitation. They reason: conservatives have right-wing talk radio so we'll start AirAmerica and conservatives have FoxNews so we'll have our Olbermann. The brilliant, hysterical comedian Patton Oswalt--who leans far to the left--has a great bit about how right-wing media knows how to rock ("we'll be right back with more FoxNews, but now, taking us to the break, The White Stripes") but "our side," a phrase he uses with a wink, does not ("coming up on NPR, the fifth installment of our interview with Joyce Carol Oates, but in the meantime here's a string quartet from Bolivia"). I'm paraphrasing his bit big time, but you get the point...

Partisan media is fun. Partisan media is theatre. Tucker Carlson saying he'll eat a shoe. Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly showing clips of a fired-up preacher (In a scene during the final season of The West wing, the Kristen Chenoweth character is telling the candidate she handles about his upcoming media appearances and says something like "you'll be talking to mean Irish men"). AirAmerica hosts using the phrase "baby mama" in reference to a seventeen-year-old girl. It's entertaining. A lot more exciting than reading a ten-page article. But, as Jon Stewart pointed out so memorably, it hurts.

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