Cheap Laughs

From The New Criterion

One thing that living in the media age ought to have taught us by now is that reality has to be manufactured and marketed, and that the media are the monopoly producers, the Standard Oil of reality for our time. To this extent they are right when they criticize, as they so often do, the leaders of their country for being out of touch with reality — they just leave out the part about how the “reality” in question has been patented and copyrighted and branded and sold as their own peculiar property. I imagine that when you are a part of a great corporate enterprise like the reality business, particularly on the marketing end of it, it must be easy to forget that reality is not a given. It has had to be painstakingly constructed out a chaos of confused information and is always in the process of being revised and reconstructed by new information. At its margins, too, it is always in competition with rival versions of reality, and the clash between them can often be productive for both sides. But Big Media have lately been seeking to squash the competition in order to protect their monopoly on reality production, and that is commonly what they are doing whenever they use the word.

It’s their world, and we’re only living in it. More importantly, those who wield political power and authority are also living in it, and it has been constructed at least in part to thwart them, if not to disgrace them and hound them from office. As one small example of how this works, consider the reality-status of the undoubted fact that three years ago President Bush appeared in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” on board the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and gave a speech — or, as Frank Rich would say, a “victory jig” — to congratulate the men on board and, implicitly, himself and his administration. It was this latter part of the message, the unspoken, subtextual part, that especially annoyed the media. What annoyed them even more was the fact that, for part of his flight, the President had taken the controls of the airplane on which he arrived on the Lincoln. Later, he appeared in photographs in his flight suit, which photographs also carried an implicit message, meant to sail over the media’s mediating powers to reach ordinary people, that their president was, well, a bit of an action hero.

That is the form of reality-manufacture known as public relations, and all politicians engage in it. Or attempt to. But the political public relations effort — as opposed to that of, say, Hollywood, which is usually treated as a subcontractor to the media’s reality-manufactory — is regarded by the media as a challenge rather than a partnership. As they wish to reserve a privileged place for their proprietorial version of reality, the political flack with a rival version to sell must be discredited, his competing story utterly derided and destroyed, for the media to go about what the media see as their business. Indeed, to a large extent, that is their business: to undermine where they cannot falsify what they contemptuously call the White House “spin.” Accordingly, in the media — and, as a result, to a considerable extent in the political culture as well — the “Mission Accomplished” image has been unspun and respun as a prime document in their case against Mr Bush. Now it is never mentioned except as one of the leading icons of the constantly repeated theme of the administration’s incompetence (at best) or, more likely, its mendacity.

Of course the media would never call this spin, but that is what it is. Looked at without its subsequent and accumulated freightage of derogatory and sinister significance, the “Mission Accomplished” images are nothing very remarkable. The Lincoln’s mission, which was to provide air support for the invasion of Iraq, had indeed been accomplished, and creditably so. Even if we take the banner to have referred to the invasion or the war more generally, the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s armies was certainly a mission in its own right and, equally certainly, it had been accomplished. To say so, and to congratulate those who had accomplished it, did not in any way imply that there could therefore not have been or were not expected to be any more missions to be accomplished in Iraq. Yet once the ironically iconic and iconically ironic power of the image had been established through its constant use by the media — as well as the more openly avowed opponents of the administration — it became what passes these days for evidence of some kind of political wrong-doing. Here, for instance, is Ana Marie Cox in the Washington Post on the resignation of Scott McClellan as the President’s spokesman. “This is a White House that, for the most part, deals with errors, misstatements and blatant untruths by simply refusing to acknowledge their existence. What ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner? Which Social Security reform? Harriet who?”

It’s a little unclear here whether she means the “Mission Accomplished” banner to be seen as an error, a misstatement or a blatant untruth. But as Social Security reform and Harriet Miers could only have been errors at the worst, the “blatant untruth” label finds itself naturally, if not explicitly, attached to it. There’s spin for you! Except that Miss Cox, unlike Mr McClellan — for whom she demonstrates an exaggerated scorn under the guise of an exaggerated pity — would get very cross with you for saying so. She may toil but she spins not, at least to hear her tell it. Her spin, unlike the President’s, is reality, and that pretense is always an essential part of the media’s spinning. If they can claim to be in a wholly different business from that of a contemptible flack like Scott McClellan — as well as being morally and intellectually his superior — their monopoly on reality manufacture and marketing is protected. That’s an unquestioned advantage for any salesman over his competitors. Accordingly, the media’s most furious fights come in response to imputations against their supposed “objectivity.” They know such attacks, if successful, threaten their very existence as reality makers. Without the bias towards a mythical objectivity, without the spin of their spinlessness, the great media money machine would grind to a halt.

But their fight for their monopoly cannot be too overt, either, without giving the game away. So it is carried on with the help of disingenuously condescending articles like Miss Cox’s, which was one of many published in a similar vein in response to poor Mr McClellan’s retirement, hurt, from the field of battle. Over and over again it was alleged that he had represented the contempt in which the Bush administration held the press. At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington at the end of April, Stephen Colbert — who has a show on the Comedy Central cable network and who had been hired as the evening’s entertainment — alluded to this latest bit of media reality when he volunteered his own services as Mr McClellan’s replacement and cited as his chief qualification for the job the fact that “I have nothing but contempt for those people,” meaning the press. The irony of the remark lay in the fact that it was true, but for the opposite reason to that which lay behind the administration’s contempt — as Mr Colbert suggested when he accused the press corps of being nothing but an amanuensis for the the latter’s view of reality.

“The president makes decisions . . . the press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions,” he said, making use of a trope that has lately been advancing from its origins on the loopy left, furious that the media do not hate the President enough, to a new and widely-accepted bit of media-reality. But is it possible for a sane man actually to believe that the media are indeed docile, obedient and subservient in their dealings with the administration? Well, here’s where the power of media-reality to degrade other and competing accounts of it makes itself felt. For as it is one of the central tenets of media-reality that the media themselves are objective observers of the world, without any political agenda of their own, there is always a case to be made by the politically engagé that it is time for objectivity and dispassion to be discarded and for the banners of revolutionary opposition to be taken up. It only sounds crazy if you are yourself sufficiently distant from media-reality to harbor doubts about the myth of media objectivity.

For those of us who fight to maintain that distance, the obvious point to be made is that, if it is true that the administration is contemptuous of the media, it is no less true that the media are contemptuous of the administration, as their routinely disrespectful treatment of its press spokesman — or Mr Colbert’s satirical stand-up act — made manifest. What else do they expect in return? If you’re constantly described as a liar and you know or believe yourself to be no liar, you are hardly likely to feel much respect for your accusers. Here, for example, is what Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post thinks: “At least now we know that the Bush administration’s name for spying on Americans without first seeking court approval — the ‘terrorist surveillance program’ — isn’t an exercise in Orwellian doublespeak after all. It’s just a bald-faced lie.” Is it really? Then for what purpose, pray, has the surveillance been undertaken if not for the detection and apprehension of terrorists? Mr Robinson does not know. Mr Robinson declines even to speculate. But the mere fact that it involves people who are not terrorists as well as people who are — and if it didn’t there would be no point to the exercise, as they would already know who the terrorists were — is enough in Mr Robinson’s book to call it a bald-faced lie. And so the catalogue of the “Bush lies” that has become an accepted datum in media-reality is increased by one more.

Once again, the media’s conceit of themselves as being unspinning and unspun flatters them into so untroubled a cosiness with their reality that they imagine there to be, even conceivably, no other. People like Eugene Robinson probably don’t even realize that they are being insulting in making a charge that, a couple of hundred years ago, might have cost them their lives. They imagine they speak the simple truth, which would explain how they might regard the administration’s contempt for them as gratuitous. Mr Colbert, by contrast, strikes me as a man with a pretty good idea of what he is doing. Certainly, he must have known that by insulting the media’s supposed supineness before the administration, he was also insulting the administration, though in the presence of both his targets he was able at least to this extent to leave his assumption of the latter’s malfeasances unspoken and so to pay his deference to the light-hearted spirit of the occasion. This made some of those present nervous. Several articles in the Washington Post, which as hometown newspaper has more of an interest than most of its media brethren in preserving some shreds of comity in the discourse between politicians and public, criticized Mr Colbert for being unfunny by ignoring “the cardinal rule of Washington humor: Make fun of yourself, not the other guy.” This in turn produced a predictably vitriolic reaction from the President’s implacable detractors in the “blogosphere,” damning as a Bush stooge anyone who didn’t find Mr Colbert funny — or else praise him for not being funny.

The latter bit of subtlety was the tack taken by the most high-brow of the comedian’s defenders, the distinguished literary critic, James Wood, in the New Republic. Professor Wood took particular issue with Richard Cohen of the Post for daring to suggest that the funnyman’s brand of political humor was not only less than sidesplitting but rude to the President.”Was Stephen Colbert funny?” the professor asks himself. “No, he was not being funny. He was being ironic, satirical, brutal. Don’t you get it? These issues are just too painful for humor.” A pity, then, you might think, that they and the correspondents’ dinner itself were dressed up as being humorous and matters for humor. On this view, Mr Colbert should have been commended not for being funny but for smuggling into the hall under the guise of his (mostly) unfunny comedy routine the brutally ironic, or ironically brutal, satire that had been unbidden at the feast. What Mr Cohen deplored, the entertainment’s rudeness, was thus the very thing that Professor Wood, obviously sharing the raging blogosphere’s conviction that no place should verbal thrusts against the President sanctuarize, commends.

It’s odd, then, that in attacking Richard Cohen he puts the word “rude” in quotation marks — thus quoting from Mr Cohen, to be sure, but also devaluing his word, if not treating it with a contempt usually reserved for Bush defenders. Does he exalt rudeness then, only to deny that it is rude? The explanation, perhaps, comes later in the piece where he notes that “there is something breathtakingly, sublimely insulting about the way Colbert, in the midst of his rudeness, continues to use the words ‘sir’ and ‘Mr. President’ not ten feet from the man he is dressing down.” I infer from this language that the ironic punctuation is meant to convey the professor’s sense that we are not to understand rude in its traditional sense, still current in Mr Cohen’s column, as being something bad, but in the new, Woodite sense as being something good. The word may be the same, but in media-reality it carries an opposite meaning. Indeed, it seems increasingly to be the case that media-reality is inconsistent with any vestigial sense of the proper decorum belonging to public life. Should not the man have said what he thought? Would he not have been merely cowardly if he had not told President Bush what he thought of him, albeit in a manner meant to be humorous, even on a light-hearted occasion such as this? If he thinks so, the professor must also be opposed to the very pretense of decorum and civility on an occasion meant to bring two opposing political sides together for an evening and therefore to such occasions themselves. Something of the sort would seem to be the corollary of the extraordinary belief — and particularly extraordinary in a man who has written well of Shakespeare — that “these issues are just too painful for humor.”

If I had been President Bush, I would have called Mr Colbert’s bluff and offered him the vacant press spokesman’s job on the spot, but the moment passed and the choice fell on the Fox News Commentator and radio host Tony Snow, who had served in the administration of the first President Bush as a speechwriter. This moved Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times to write that, “In formally naming . . . Tony Snow to be his press secretary on Wednesday, President Bush completed a decade-long transformation of the role of the presidential spokesman from behind- the-scenes functionary to daily on-camera personality.” In a sense, therefore, his job was to be the administration’s answer to Stephen Colbert, a “personality” whose license to speak is conditional, like that of a royal fool, on his not being taken seriously. And just as Mr Colbert knew that his job was to criticize the media as well as the President, so Mr Snow was thought by some in the administration to have burnished his credentials for the job by having called the administration’s domestic policies “lackluster” and the President himself “something of an embarrassment.” Thus Mark McKinnon, a media consultant to the President, was quoted as saying that,”Tony has huge street cred. It gives him credibility, and that’s the most important thing for a press secretary.”

But credibility with whom? The media? Are we to suppose that they will reverse all their efforts of the last three years to call into question the President’s own credibility for the sake of “lackluster” and “something of an embarrassment”? The media might run one of those mock apologies in which the satirical magazine Private Eye specializes: “We may inadvertently have given the impression that we thought the President was a liar and a scofflaw, a torturer and a war criminal who ought to be impeached and then turned over the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We now accept that he is a thoroughly decent fellow and a great president who has hired as his press spokesman someone who once dared to apply the word ‘lackluster’ to some of his policies.” The very idea is ludicrous, but the media’s spin on the appointment and their own role as “objective” and dispassionate observers depended on their temporarily upholding the fiction that it might be so in order that it may appear more persuasive when they find, as they surely will, that Mr Snow is just another hapless puppet of the Bush junto, as Gore Vidal affects to call it, like Scott McClellan.

All this is part of the publicity for the media’s latest product line, a retro, ‘70s-themed but thoroughly renovated version of Watergate. They’ve invested too much in developing and rolling it out not to keep it up now, which is what explains the hysteria of Mr Robinson at the news that security services are checking phone records in search of terrorists. The media spin was that this was somehow scandalous just because it hadn’t been known about before — except that it had. Never mind, the main thing is to bring out something that can pass for a scandal every few days so as to drive down the President’s poll numbers. Then the low poll numbers themselves become a scandal. One of the hilarious — or rude and unfunny, according to taste — jokes told by Mr Colbert at the Correspondents’ dinner went like this. “Now I know there’s some polls out there saying this man has a 32-percent approval rating, but guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking ‘in reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.” And so it does, too, at least for as long as we leave the exclusive rights to reality’s manufacture to the media.

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