“Every joke,” George Orwell wrote, “is a tiny revolution.” That’s because what makes something funny is that it upsets the established order. The more subversive the joke—the more it says what people secretly feel but are afraid to say—the better it is.
That is why The Daily Show—as crass and juvenile as it can be—is actually one of the best news programs and, along with The Colbert Report and South Park, offers some of the most insightful commentary on television. While it clearly has a particular perspective, it is hard to be funny if you are simply pushing one point of view. And if your jokes do not hit home, no one will laugh.
Our major news outlets are not particularly subversive any more. The received wisdom is that reporters should be studiously neutral, reporting on controversial questions without deciding them. But in practice the only way to be neutral to everyone’s satisfaction is to say as little as possible that anyone might disagree with. While major news organizations still publish the occasional meticulously researched piece of investigative reporting, they are often reduced to simply passing along what politicians say without commentary.
So major news outlets like New York Times, The Washington Post and National Public Radio have been unwilling to use the word “torture” to describe waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and so on, even though there was never any serious question that all those techniques would have been considered torture before the government began to use them. Instead they use Orwellian euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation” to describe what we are doing—even though, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, they continue to call the same techniques “torture” when the Chinese or Iranians use them.
The problem is that when news organizations do challenge something a political figure says—no matter how ridiculous it may be—they are immediately attacked for taking sides. By and large they choose to withhold their judgments about whether politicians’ claims are accurate. And since the attacks of September 11—when dissent was seen as being inappropriate at a time when we needed national unity—journalists seem more reluctant than ever to offend people by questioning political authority. As Greenwald writes elsewhere, this is a far cry from I.F. Stone’s famous claim that the most important thing a journalist needed to remember was that “all governments lie.”
Real news is offensive. If it did not challenge our expectations, it would not particularly be news. News programs with a more editorial bent, like The O’Reilly Factor and Countdown with Keith Olbermann, can often be more informative than the supposedly more serious shows, if only because they are more willing to challenge what political actors say. Bloggers have also increasingly taken on the role of public skeptics. Of course, when journalists do take positions of their own, it us up to the people who follow them to use their own judgment about how trustworthy each source is. But at least when someone ridicules the official line rather than repeats it, it gives us something to think about.