The Catholic University of America
Jul 31 2011

What Goes “Ha-Ha-Ha Thump”?*

Posted by Stephen J. McKenna at 2:44 PM

We’re in trouble. The news is not good.  That’s a perennial observation, since it has long been understood by communication scholars that “the news” and “the media” have a very definite bias, neither right nor left, but unquestionably in favor of the deviant, the unhappy, the vexing, the violent.  There are many explanations for this, not the least of which is that we humans are simply drawn to the non-normal, as it is evolutionarily some kind of “normal” or its illusory simulation that we crave to maintain in our lives and society.  This happens to dovetail all too smoothly with the financial objectives of commercial news organizations, who, far from being primarily about the business delivering information to audiences, are in the eyeball trade, working the economy of attention to bring audiences to the beatific vision of commercial underwriters.  There is some variation in this of course, from some more responsible outlets to the Murdochian murk.  But alas, there is almost no escaping this dysfunctional communication environment, one more element in the dysfunction of our polity.  Panic in the economy sells breakfast cereal and smart phones and summer movies.

Or will it this time?  Even compared to many moments of bad news, this is a strange one, not least because the debt ceiling catastrophe we are close to witnessing is not like a tornado, an earthquake or even an assassination or war.  The Tea “Party” ( to see why I use quotes, see my reply to Ernest Zampelli’s recent post) agents (I won’t call them politicians, ditto) who are playing brinkmanship with the country’s future are willfully bringing on the storm, eagerly hoping the earth will crack and swallow us.  That’s not a deviance we are much drawn to watch; it is more like an episode of Jackass where as grown-ups we just turn away from some adolescent fool repeatedly riding a bicycle into a brick wall.   They are “succeeding” in part because the attention economy has practically evaporated, and the audience (citizens? hello?) is ready to check out.  Who can stand to watch or read about one more moment of this utter madness?  Against this backdrop, it makes solid rational sense to go to the movies and watch, say, cowboys fight against an alien invasion.  Now there’s a coherent narrative.

And of course it is golden moment for satire TV, seemingly the only source of news sanity lately.  Jon Stewart’s savaging of President Obama’s weak-kneed address urging us to call our congresspeople was brilliant stuff (despite Obama’s canny quotation of Ronald Reagan), and his survey of the right’s claim to being the victim in this whole mess was a display of brazen hypocrisy more breathtaking than usual even for Stewart’s show.  Stephen Colbert’s enthralled reception of the Heritage Foundation’s discovery that poor people really aren’t all that poor was likewise bracing. 

What does it mean when about the only place to reclaim a decent and thoughtful grasp of political reality now is through such shows?  Irony, their dramatic mainstay, is understood by rhetoricians to be a technique of making something known by stating its opposite. Often this is done as a means of subtly gaining the allegiance and complicity of an audience.  While TV political satire surely operates this way (and thus helps sell Smirnoff vodka and the Nissan Leaf on Comedy Central) it is also serving a different function. It is as if only this anti-news can bring us the news right now.  There is something humanely restorative about this biting satire and these staggering ironies, precisely because they operate at a sophisticated and virtuosic rhetorical level that has been all but abandoned by politicians, who thus are no longer really functioning as politicians.  As such, Stewart and company treat their audiences as intelligent persons—as agents of reason.  The political truth is so dysfunctional now—indeed it’s questionable whether what we’re witnessing is even politics but rather some kind of ideological suicide maneuver that is an outright repudiation of the political—that straight news is insufficient to express what is going on.  This is especially so when the journalistic norms of “balance” (don’t divide that consumer audience!) conspire to make outlets feel the need to cover both sides of every issue as if each side’s position has some equal claim to legitimacy.  Such reflexive leveling treats the audience as if it were, like those news subjects themselves, just not all that rational.  It demeans us as persons.  With Stewart and Colbert at least we can laugh a bit, and claim back some humanity.  If that’s all we do, though, we’re in trouble.  Sadly, I don’t see many other options.  We’re in trouble.
*A man laughing his head off.