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Print view: Rachel rejected Jon's distinction. Which part of ''The 'Comedy' Channel'' doesn't she understand?
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WHICH PART DOESN’T SHE UNDERSTAND! Rachel rejected Jon’s distinction. Which part of “The Comedy Channel” doesn’t she understand? // link // print // previous // next //

Friedman tells the truth, several decades later: On the one hand, Thomas Friedman is right-as-rain in this morning’s column. He bashes Michelle Bachmann for her recent, disgraceful flight from the truth—for a blatant lie she helped spread around the world. And he even names the names of others who pushed the blatant lie around.

We recommend that you read his whole column. But this is where Bachman comes in:

FRIEDMAN (11/17/10): In case you missed it, a story circulated around the Web on the eve of President Obama’s trip that it would cost U.S. taxpayers $200 million a day—about $2 billion for the entire trip. Cooper said he felt impelled to check it out because the evening before he had had Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a Republican and Tea Party favorite, on his show and had asked her where exactly Republicans will cut the budget.

Instead of giving specifics, Bachmann used her airtime to inject a phony story into the mainstream. She answered: “I think we know that just within a day or so the president of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day. He’s taking 2,000 people with him. He’ll be renting over 870 rooms in India, and these are five-star hotel rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This is the kind of over-the-top spending.”

Friedman describes the way Cooper corrected Bachmann’s howler on his program the next night. In the process, Friedman even names the names of other big players who pushed the obvious lie all around—who blatantly lied to the public:

FRIEDMAN: Cooper then showed the following snippets: Rush Limbaugh talking about Obama’s trip: “In two days from now, he’ll be in India at $200 million a day.” Then Glenn Beck, on his radio show, saying: “Have you ever seen the president, ever seen the president go over for a vacation where you needed 34 warships, $2 billion—$2 billion, 34 warships. We are sending—he’s traveling with 3,000 people.” In Beck’s rendition, the president’s official state visit to India became “a vacation” accompanied by one-tenth of the U.S. Navy. Ditto the conservative radio talk-show host Michael Savage. He said, “$200 million? $200 million each day on security and other aspects of this incredible royalist visit; 3,000 people, including Secret Service agents.”

Cooper then added: “Again, no one really seemed to care to check the facts...”

On the one hand, Friedman debunks this obvious lie in some detail. On the other hand, here we go again! Friedman completely fails to place this episode in its larger context. Quite correctly, he complains about this gruesome conduct. But as he closes his column, he makes it sound like this might be something new:

FRIEDMAN: When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues—deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate—let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate our public debate today are not going away—and neither is the Internet. All you can hope is that more people will do what Cooper did—so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people’s first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it.

Everything Friedman says is correct. But a person might think, from that passage, that this sort of “carnival barking” is fairly new. In fact, our discourse has turned on “fabrications” and “crazy lies” for several decades now. During much of that period, people like Friedman huffed their way around the world, politely refusing to notice the way our discourse was being destroyed.

Was Bill Clinton a serial murderer? Actually no, he was not. But Jerry Falwell was allowed to make money saying so, and to do Meet the Press.

Did Al Gore say he invented the Internet? Actually no, he didn’t. But a string of such claims came from Rich and Dowd, right at Friedman’s own paper. Friedman only speaks up today, now that the “crazy lies” come from people he dislikes on a cultural basis.

Even now, Friedman fails to see the full picture in this latest lie. The scribe does well in naming key names—Bachmann, Limbaugh, Beck and Savage. But he fails to see the broader pattern into which this latest lie fits. Rather plainly, the crazy lie about Obama’s expensive trip to India echoed this summer’s earlier crazy lie about his wife’s expensive trip to Spain. Both stories echoed the earlier tales about Nancy Pelosi’s expensive plane rides; all these stories advanced a decades-old narrative about big-spending, feckless Dems. And although Friedman names three major talkers, he doesn’t name the gang of clowns who tip-toed around this story on the October 22 Special Report. On that program, Krauthammer, Stoddard and Barnes danced around this latest “crazy lie.” All three seemed to say or imply that the report was wrong in some way. But none of the three was especially clear—and none of the three would tell Fox viewers this was just the latest group lie, the kind of lie that gets spread all around to disinform the rubes.

They knew it. But none of them said.

Our discourse has worked this way for decades—but liberals and mainstreamers don’t seem to know it, or they don’t want to tell. Recently, Will Bunch suggested that this breakdown started in 2003. More recently, Steve Benen linked to Andrew Sullivan, who seemed to suggest that it started last year! This morning, Friedman directly attacks the problem, but he too seems to suggest this is new. And just look at the quote he offers from Cooper: No one really seemed to care to check the facts.

That quotes implies what is blatantly false—that this sort of “crazy lire” happens by accident or by mistake, when in fact, as everyone knows, these lies emerge by design.

In this column, Friedman starts to do a very good thing; he starts to tell the nation’s rubes that they get disinformed, in systematic ways, by some very dishonest players. The public needs to be told about this, but they need to be told in full. And one more thing: They can’t be told by the kinds of Born Losers who call them racists and tea-baggers first.

These lies get debunked on Countdown each night, along with other “lies” which are sometimes true. But the host’s repellent, bombastic style insures that no one outside the One True Tribe will hear.

Special report: When Stewart met Maddow!

PART TWO—WHICH PART DOESN’T SHE UNDERSTAND (permalink): What exactly was in dispute when Stewart met Rachel Maddow last week? Watching the full 49-minute tape, it’s often quite hard to say.

Stewart rather clearly implied that MSNBC is a bit too “tribal;” “every now and then,” he said, he looks over and thinks that The One True Channel is behaving a bit like Fox (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/16/10). More directly, he chastised Maddow for insulting “tea-baggers” in such extreme ways in the spring of 2009 (more below).

Stewart also expressed some fairly murky ideas about “the main conflict in our society,” which he said isn’t red versus blue. And sometimes, he dipped into the metaphor bag, producing cloudy weather. We still can’t say that we understand the metaphor employed here:

STEWART (11/11/10): Look, I love the voices that I hear on MSNBC. And there’s a difference between— Here’s what’s unfair about what I do. This is really what’s a great—here’s a great thing that I think is unfair.

You’re one person with one great voice and sincere—but I’m a climate scientist. I study weather patterns and climate. You’re talking about the weather. And maybe these networks are not meant to be viewed in aggregate, but there is an aggregate. There is an effect.

And when people say, “Well, you’re influential, too”—I’m a 22-minute show. And when I say, you know, “puppets making crank calls in front of me,” I don’t mean that to diminish comedy. I mean, that is not then re-enforced through the next person. It’s not a relay. And there is an amplifying effect to the relay.

The analysts gagged whenever Stewart pandered, telling Maddow how much he loves her. Rather plainly, Maddowism has been designed to evoke such ceaseless fawning; a stronger man would have refused. But what did Stewart mean about the weather v. climate thing, to which he returned at a later point?

The analysts love Stewart’s voice! But frankly, they’re still not sure.

To our ear, Stewart was way too polite—was way too avuncular—in his critiques of his host. That said, there was one distinction he kept trying to draw—the distinction between news and comedy. From the third and fifth minutes on, Stewart kept trying to draw the difference between “satire”—the tradition within which he works—and actual news, where Maddow is found. In the seventh minute of the unexpurgated session, he said the following in response to a question (to watch the full session, click here):

MADDOW: Do you think that The Daily Show functions just as entertainment? I sort of feel like— Satire, it’s more than entertainment. It is engagement and it is criticism.

STEWART: Here’s what I would say. I feel more kinship to Jerry Seinfeld than I do to, you know, what you guys do, or what CNN does, or what NBC does, in that he is able to comedically articulate an intangible for people.

When they see it, they are, "God, it`s been in my head and I know it`s been in there, but I’ve never put it together with that kind of rhythm in four levels, and that`s hilarious that you were able to articulate that."

He is a craftsman at that. He’s the best at being able to craft those moments of sort of these intangible esoteric things and put them together into something that really connects with people.

We try to do the same thing [as Seinfeld], but with a more political-social avenue. But it is still—if you were to look at our process, he’s much more our process than the news is. Does that make sense?

Again and again, Stewart returned to a basic idea: As a “satirist,” his role and his responsibilities differ from those belonging to Maddow. Maddow never bought this claim; she kept insisting that she and Stewart are playing the same basic game. Later, Stewart tried again, after noting that he and his show are “parodying a news organization:”

STEWART: I am the highlander. You know, there’s been a form of me around in—forever, a comedian who, with political and social concepts, criticizes them from a haughty yet ultimately feckless perch, throwing things, like, that—

The box that I’m in has always existed. The box that you’re talking about I think is new. And so I do think if that’s moving towards me, that’s OK. But I really feel like I’m on pretty solid ground with the footsteps of my ancestors.

You know, that’s all—you know, I don’t happen if the Smother Brothers don’t happen. Bill Maher—you know, those guys all paved a way for something that I do. But that’s always existed.

At various times, Stewart tried to draw a distinction—a distinction that fell on deaf ears. Stewart said he’s part of a long tradition, a tradition including the Smothers Brothers. He also named Chaplin at one point; he could have named many others, including the Fool in Lear. In his polite, avuncular way, he kept suggesting that Maddow is playing a different game, a game that comes from a different tradition—a game he said is better, and more significant, than the game he plays. But Maddow kept rejecting the proffered distinction. In this exchange, she sadly explained the way she is now perceived:

MADDOW: You think of it differently. But I think a lot of people who watch your show, and who watch cable news, think of what we do as not being that different, which sucks for me because I used to be sort of a mildly amusing person talking—

STEWART: Right. Right. Right.

MADDOW: —like using humor to tell the story of the wasteful F-35 second engine on that fighter jet. And now, I’m the person trying to be Jon Stewart and sucking.

Poor Rachel! People compare her to Stewart, and think she isn’t as funny as he is! But throughout the session, Maddow kept rejecting Stewart’s suggestion that he was working within an established tradition, while she might be wandering over some lines. Indeed, this is the way she introduced the interview on her November 11 program:

MADDOW: Ladies and gentlemen, the Jon Stewart interview—in which Mr. Stewart gives a lengthy and is in my view mostly but entirely fair critique of cable news as improbably elevating partisan distinctions between us as Americans.

In which Mr. Stewart describes what he sees as different rules for what he does as a satirist and for what we on cable news do—and I frankly don’t buy it, not at all, not even for a minute.

Good God, this person is clueless! Some fault must go to Stewart, for being so vague—for trying so hard not to hurt Maddow’s feelings. But people, which part of “The Comedy Channel” doesn’t Maddow understand? Because of his courteous vagueness, we’re not entirely sure what Stewart meant as he repeatedly turned to this theme. But he seemed to be saying that Maddow is stepping over the lines of news traditions with her endless mugging and clowning, and that she may be endangering the more serious role she can play in the news game when she does such things.

I’m a comedian—but you’re in news! Stewart kept suggesting this basic distinction—but Maddow kept rejecting it. And her rejection is intriguing, because this is right where Maddow fled when Stewart told her, in his most direct criticism, that she had gone way over the line when she lodged those repellent, relentless attacks against the nation’s “tea-baggers.” Note the way Maddow defends her conduct when Stewart raises this point. In the broad sense, this was offered as part of Stewart’s claim that both sides, right and left, have ways of “overly demonizing” the other:

STEWART: When [liberals] spoke out against the war, there was a subtle undertone of “You’re un-American. You don’t want to win the war on terror.” Well, I think what also comes out sometimes from the other side is: “Tea-bagger.”

Now that’s, I think, derogatory. And I don’t think anybody would mistake it for that—for anything other than that. And it’s been used on this network quite frequently, by hosts, by guests—

MADDOW: You don’t think it was funny that they were calling, they were saying, “Tea-bag the White House before the White House tea-bags you?”

STEWART: I thought it was funny for a day.


STEWART: I thought it was funny for a day.

MADDOW: Funny enough to play the John Waters clip of the tea-bagging thing on a bar?

STEWART: For a day.


STEWART: I probably wouldn’t have run with it, with guests and things, for months.

MADDOW: I didn’t run with it for months.

STEWART: No, but your part—

MADDOW: But I got criticized for it for months.

STEWART: Well, because you kind of made hay of it. You made more hay of it than maybe, you know—

MADDOW: Took the joke too far.

STEWART: Now, again, I have the leeway to do that. Now, we get back into a whole other thing. I have the leeway to do that. But the one thing that I don`t have that you have is the ability to really do something about it. You`re in the game, like—

MADDOW: You’re in the game, too. We’re in the same game.

STEWART: I don’t think so. I think you’re in a better game than I’m in.

MADDOW: How? What’s the difference?

Maddow’s two weeks of “tea-bagger” dick jokes was one of the most repellent things we’ve ever seen on TV. Making it even more repellent was the way Maddow kept lying to her own audience, using those “guests” (Ana Marie Cox) as a beard. Night after night, Maddow insisted that she was embarrassed by Cox’s endless dick jokes, even as she kept inviting Cox back to tell them again the next night. This was Vintage Maddowism: Maddow played the game two ways—aiming nasty insults at millions of people, even as she insisted that she herself was much too pure to do any such thing.

Comedy includes an insult tradition, but people like Stewart would perhaps understand how repellent Maddow’s conduct was, aimed at average people who weren’t in the room with a chance to fight back. (By the way: Insult comedians state their insults in their own voice.) We’ll guess that he also understood a simple fact, a fact an elitist like Maddow wouldn’t grasp (or possibly care about): As of April 2009, the vast majority of Americans had no idea that the term “tea bag” had a sexual connotation. As Maddow kept mocking those dumb, stupid rubes, she was trashing the bulk of American voters—the very people who just kicked her ass in the past election.

By far, this was the most direct criticism Stewart directed at Maddow. But note the way Maddow responded. She suggested that her conduct was simply a matter of joking, a joke she may have taken too far.

She only did it because it was funny! Didn’t Stewart think it was funny too?

As Maddow responded to Stewart, there was no sense that this two-week string of dick jokes had been meant as an insult—as a way of trashing the other side, in the way Stewart had described. People! Maddow doesn’t do such things! She’s much too perfect, too pure!

Strikingly, Stewart overstated his criticism here; Maddow really didn’t “run with it for months,” although she came back with the John Waters reference eight months after the two-week episode in question. (Her utterly ludicrous point: The tea-baggers should have understood the term, since it was in a film by Waters!) But in this exchange, we see Maddow refusing, once again, to accept Stewart’s proffered distinction between two traditions—satire versus news. And we see the deepest part of Maddowism’s unfortunate soul: The belief that Maddow gets to do whatever she wants on the TV machine thingy, tradition or common sense to the side. The notion that TV exists so Rachel Maddow can let the whole world adore her.

Rachel Maddow was only joking when she kept insulting those people! Rush Limbaugh does the same thing when he oversteps; he quickly falls back on the bad-faith defense that he’s just an entertainer. To this day, Maddow can’t bring herself to say that she behaved badly—showed significant bad judgment—in that two-week “tea-bagger” episode. More significantly, she can’t understand what Stewart seems to be saying about the varied roles she assigns herself on her self-adoring program: She rejects the idea that she may be forfeiting her influence as a news person when she insists that, traditions be damned, she can just clown and mug too.

In our view, Stewart should have been more clear in his critiques of Maddow. We agree with what he seemed to be saying; we think Maddow is erring badly in the self-adoring way she blurs those traditional lines. (We find it repellent to watch the way she clowns about the news, which does involve the life-and-death interests of the world’s many people.) In part for that reason, we think Maddow and Maddowism are a creeping disaster for progressive interests. If Karl Rove had been allowed to invent the progressive TV host, Rachel Maddow is the creature Karl Rove would have conceived.

In our view, Stewart should have been more clear in his critiques. But one thing was clear from the things Maddow said: Maddow always tells the truth—and her motives are always quite pure.

Tomorrow—part 3: Rachel Maddow isn’t tribal—or so Maddow says