Needing more from our media

In an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox New Sunday, Jon Stewart quoted Will Rogers: “How crazy is it when politicians are a joke and comedians are taken seriously.”

Night in and night out, Stewart relies on an incompetent media to fall over itself, so that he can replay the clips to studio applause. How is it, then, that a comedian becomes the political compass for a generation?

Stewart himself said, in the same interview, “I’m given credibility in this world because of the disappointment the public has in what the news media does”. His success lies in his ability to recognise the modern media’s failings to uphold their mandate.

It’s a global problem. When was the last time you saw something of substance in the newspaper? When was the last time you heard a politician criticize their opponent’s policy in a complex and thoughtful matter?

The presidential debates have been happening in America over the past few weeks, and as Stewart has pointed out, a popular trend running through news and talk shows is to claim that, to really understand a debate, you have to watch it with the sound turned off.

And that’s just it. The policy? The substance? No. Instead we get analyses of who had the stronger handshake, and the most open stance.

This isn’t just a problem with the American media. Fox news and CNN are fun to point out from Australia, ribbing the absurdity of our American counterparts, but every day in Australia we are inundated with blunt slogans. Stop the boats. Move forward. The carbon tax. The mining tax. The faceless men. The Mad Monk. Peter Slipper’s text messages. Craig Thomson’s prostitutes. I don’t remember when it happened, but at some point the media stopped doing its job.

This is the joke that Jon Stewart is in on, and it’s why he is both a successful comedian and the unintentional political leader of a generation.

The media has gotten so ridiculous that it has become a parody of itself. What Stewart does isn’t news satire per se. Jon Stewart helps us grin and bear it. We’re all laughing out of frustration because we’ve given up expecting more.

In the Rumble 2012 special, where he debated with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, Stewart coined the phrase “Bullshit Mountain”, where he accuses the conservative media of living. A place where soundbytes dictate entire policies, Obama is a Muslim, and everybody’s wealth is at risk of communist redistribution. “On Bullshit Mountain, our problems are amplified and our solutions simplified”. (Watch an excerpt of Stewart talking about Bullshit Mountain here.)

We deserve more from our media and it is our responsibility to demand that we get it. If we are going to engage in topical debates, whether it be questioning immigration policy, or denouncing chauvinism in the chambers, we have to understand that there are no simple answers.

Demonizing Tony Abbott is fun, and lots of people on twitter will agree – but let’s be honest, neither Labor nor Liberal’s policies are perfect- far from it.  Denigrating either side isn’t going to progress this conversation. How many of us actually understand the pros and cons of either party’s policy?

The first and most important step in altering things for the better is to be well informed on the substance, not the slogans of a debate. Then make your case firmly, passionately – but always be prepared to acknowledge the legitimate points made by those you disagree with.

Otherwise we, the new media, risk building our own Bullshit Mountain, where all conservative politicians are misogynists who want to lower taxes for rich people and kill asylum seekers.

We can do better than that.

-John de Jong

John is the Daily Editor for We Matter Media. You can follow him @thejohndejong