What a joke

November 26, 2008 - Leave a Response

Media watchdog groups aren’t exactly known for their sense of humor, and conservative ones even less so, but even still, this was ridiculous: News Busters, one such organization, complaining about the “liberal bias” of Saturday Night Live because they hadn’t focused enough of their skits on Barack Obama during the run-up to the election. Another group cut from the same conservative and humorless cloth, the Media Research Center, charged the the show had clearly targeted John McCain and especially Sarah Palin for their impersonators to skewer. Such purely and openly partisan groups will always find ways to stick allegations of bias where they don’t belong, and what with the expressly political subjects that SNL was dealing with, it’s hardly a surprise that they jumped in lock, stock and barrel.

Here’s the thing: Barack Obama is not funny. Even with the caveat that humor is largely subjective, no fair minded person could honestly say that mimicking this man is a good source of laughs. John McCain is an old grandpa figure who refers to everyone as “my friends” and walks around aimlessly at debates. That’s a character. Joe Biden is an arrogant know-it-all with hair plugs and a knack for running his mouth and ending up hurting his own cause. That’s a character. Sarah Palin is a stereotype personified, a simpleminded bumpkin who drops her g’s and would lose her head if it weren’t attached to her neck. She is literally a character. All three of these candidates were mercilessly mocked by SNL, and it’s because they have personality traits, characteristics, that can be exaggerated and exploited for laughs.

Barack Obama is a guy who says “uh” a few too many times when he speaks. And he… well that’s about it. This is not a character. This is not someone you impersonate to entertain an audience. And it has nothing to do with him being better or worse than any of the aforementioned people, it has everything to do with him being a bad basis for humorous mimicry. Go back to 2000: Gore, a condescending robot who used ridiculous buzzwords like “lockbox” vs Bush, a poorly spoken Texan daddy’s boy. Again, both were poked fun at week in and week out by the show and it’s because their action and rhetoric lends itself to being laughed at.

Humor isn’t about being fair and it’s not about making fun of both sides of anything equally, it’s about what works. Obama doesn’t. And the real joke here is that the people who run these watchdog groups spend so much time studying the entertainment world and yet can still be so completely oblivious as to what makes it work.

The message, not the medium

September 24, 2008 - One Response

The lawlessness of the blogosphere makes the Old West seem civil. Credentialed by no institution, accountable to no authority, bloggers churn out their unsourced and unverifiable stories under the euphemistic heading of “citizen journalism”. Prioritizing speed over accuracy and salaciousness over thoughtful reporting, they falsely claim the mantle of populism, that of the noble dissidents “telling you what the mainstream media won’t!”. True, many bloggers are well intentioned, and some blogs even make for worthwhile reading, but the vast majority of them that dot the landscape of this den of iniquity are simply wastes of electronic space at best. At their worst they represent the greatest threat the area of journalism has ever faced.

Such hyperbole has been shouted by many and silently thought of by many more. The wording may be different, but the underlying idea is the same: blogging is not journalism and the internet is a dangerous tool that is subverting the real thing. What such thinkers have failed to grasp, what they have always failed to grasp, is that they’re shooting at the wrong target.

The internet is no more or less of a problematic medium for journalism than television or radio or print are. The only difference is that as opposed to those three, with the internet widespread dissemination of information is feasible for anyone and everyone. Older media have what amounts to a simplistic built in “quality control” by virtue of being closed to most people. The average person will never have a syndicated newspaper column or talk show, but with a few clicks of a mouse they can have their thoughts on anything in the world available to everyone in the world.

This upsets those that hold firm to the belief that there should be standards of trust established between the reporter and the consumer. Such worrying is unfounded. Consider: if tomorrow television turned into the equivalent of the internet, that is, we all had the ability to self publish our own content to be viewed alongside traditional channels such as CNN, what would happen? Would this lead to everyone taking to heart every nonsensical thing they heard simply because it was on their set? Of course not. What would gain tract would be, as in all forms of media, that which solidifies a reputation.

That’s what gets people to look around and stick around. It isn’t simply existing, it’s earning a rep. And the mere fact that the internet doesn’t require those who wish to establish such a rep to go to an establishment institution to get it does not in any way take away from the credibility of this innately populist medium. Broadcast or written or downloaded, it’s always the message that determines what’s worthwhile, never the medium. The problem doesn’t lay with blogs because you read something stupid on Joe Schmo’s blog, no more than newspapers are a problem because you see something even more stupid in tomorrow’s New York Post. And the internet will no more usher in the death of reliable reporting than giving everyone in the world their own channel would.

On the other hand, consider: is it possible that because of the internet there will be great voices heard that otherwise would have no outlet to express themselves?

It’s more than possible; it’s happening right now.