March 20, 2007

Then They Came for the Comedians

I have been a Bill Maher fan ever since he told one of the greatest jokes of all time:

"I was raised half Jewish and half Catholic. So I went to confession, but I brough an attorney along. I'd say 'Bless me, father, for I have sinned -- and you know Mr. Cohen here.'"

In recent years, Maher has taken up edgy topical and political humor. Maher caused a huge controversy in 2002 when, on his appropriately named ABC program "Politically Incorrect," he said a most politically incorrect thing in reference to the 9/11 terrorists being labeled "cowards":

"We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly. Stupid maybe, but not cowardly."

Afterward, ABC did not renew Maher's contract.

I do not subscribe to HBO, but am able to watch it occasionally at friends' homes. Recently, on Maher's new HBO program "Real Time With Bill Maher," guest Dan Rather said that, as television networks have been taken over by entertainment executives, news has become an unwanted stepchild. These executives view news as an unprofitable nuisance, whereas entertainment programming is profitable. As a result, according to Rather, so-called "entertainment news," such as the endless coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death, has taken over the news. Rather also said that, at major newspapers, the relationship between the executives and journalists and the government officials they cover has become too cozy. As a result, Rather said, journalists have too often permitted government officials to escape wrongdoing with insufficient scrutiny. Rather said that it was now left to comedians such as Bill Maher and John Stewart to "speak truth to power."

I agree with Dan Rather, and would add a couple of observations. First, as I have mentioned before, as someone who has worked for and with cable television networks such as CNN for years, I think that one reason for the explosion of "entertainment news" is that the cable networks have 24 hours a day to fill, and, in the minds of their executives, there isn't that much real news going on. These executives also believe that the public has no appetite for "hard news" all day long. This view becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I have no doubt that opinion surveys support the decision to air celebrity gossip and other fluff on the news networks.

I also agree with Rather's point about speaking truth to power. A lot of evidence emerged in the Scooter Libby trial that well-known newspaper journalists and columnists such as Robert Novak and Judith Miller sometimes act as uncritical stenographers for high-level government officials who, by waving the prospect of exclusive access to juicy scoops, use these reporters to leak their message behind a cloak of anonymity and legitimacy.

It seems to me that, aside from comedians such as Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Chris Rock, there are too few brave souls who are willing to deliver to Americans the information we need to make informed decisions on where to take our country. (Incidentally, as Maher's remark about the 9/11 terrorists indicates, he is happy to criticize powerful Democrats and Republicans alike). That this duty is now left to the comedians, who by definition need to package their information to be funny and entertaining, is a pretty sad commentary on the direction in which we have headed. Although Dan Rather did not mention it, perhaps the blogosphere also serves this critical function that the news organizations have increasingly abandoned. If so, we have reason to be hopeful.


At 6:54 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

We used to watch the 6:00 news every night when I was growing up. I can't tell you the last time I watched television news. But then I am weird -- I can't tell you the last time I watched anything on television.


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