It’s the middle of December and we’re not only two short weeks away from the new year, we’re quietly tip-toing our way into a new decade.
While many writers will be surrendering their soapboxes to reflection and summation — perhaps as the basis for trying to predict where it seems we’re headed — I’d like to offer a different sort of historically-minded meditation: a brief you are here assessment informed by two somewhat interconnected statements that recently caught my attention.
Here’s my point of departure: both statements speak to the interdependent relationship between history, journalism, and something we’ll broadly refer to as “satire” — wherein a crisis-like event in one (let’s say “field”) can have a cascading impact on the others and society more generally.
To be clear, my aim here isn’t to pronounce a specific ailment or even outline a remedy, but to locate the present interplay of all three (history, journalism, and satire) for further discussion and a broader point I’ll get to shortly.
STATEMENT ONE: STEWART ON MADDOW
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (of the Rachel Maddow Show) aired parts of a fifty-minute interview with the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart during her Thursday 11 November 2010 show. Maddow’s staff uploaded the full interview the day after and it became something of a minor Internet attraction, spilling over into the following week.
The interview followed Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and / or Fear” that he co-hosted with Stephen Colbert at the National Mall in Washington, DC on 30 October 2010. Of course, this was a satirical (or not-so satirical) reduction of Fox News host Glenn Beck’s own “Restoring Honor rally” in Washington, DC from 28 August 2010 — which presented itself as something of a “response” [insert your viewpoint here] to Martin Luther King Jr.’s 28 August 1963 march on Washington which is best-known for his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Stewart’s rally concluded with what he described to Maddow as a speech that was “as far as [he] could go” in his role as a satirist. Saying, “[Satirists] can always criticize but [they] can’t actually do anything” […] “They have no responsibility.”
Maddow responded by suggesting that what she does in her capacity as a cablenews host, and what he does as someone who satirizes the news is “…not seen as being all that different.”
I have existed — I am the highlander — there has been a form of me around in — forever — a comedian, who — with political and social concepts criticizes [those in power] 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 okay but I really feel like I’m on pretty solid ground with the footsteps of my ancestors.”
The box that Maddow is talking about is opinion-based journalism, which, if you discount the more romantic view of journalism as pure-objectivity, isn’t really all that different from journalism. Toward the end of the interview, she summarized it thusly: “We’re getting to be more like you, you’re not getting to be more like us.”
STATEMENT TWO: FERGUSON ON ZAKARIA
Last week, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria hosted a panel on his show GPS — perhaps the only show on CNN hosted by an adult (who speaks to an audience of adults as though they were, well, adults) — regarding the latest batch of documents released by the controversial website/organization WikiLeaks that began on 28 November 2010.
The panel included Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, to whom Zakaria addressed this question: “Niall, it’s a historian’s treasure trove, though. I mean, it’s extraordinary, 250,000 of these — you — you would normally have to wait 30, 40, 50 years before you’d get to see all this.”
Well, I’d frankly rather wait. I think it’s extremely depressing that — that this kind of thing happens because it — it renders the whole process in American diplomacy null and void.
But I agree that the content doesn’t appear particularly revelatory, and it — it told people who were more or less in the know what they more or less already knew. But I worry much more about the effect it has on future record keeping as well as future — traditional diplomacy.
The only consolation I have, before I pronounce the end of history, the nightmare scenario is that what happens now is that American foreign policy goes down the Goldman Sachs route. Nothing gets committed to paper. It’s all done by voicemail, and there’s no longer any written record.
That’s the nightmare scenario because that means future historians will suddenly find that the history of the Obama administration’s foreign policy stopped in November of 2010 and there wasn’t any detectable policy after that.
While virtually every aspect of this latest and on-going document dump by WikiLeaks has already been analyzed and re-analysed, Ferguson’s reaction is essentially conservative — and fairly representative of the academic community as a whole.
His language is evasive; he feels threatened.
YOU ARE HERE
Which brings me to my broader point: journalism, history, and satire can borrow from one another, but they operate differently and serve separate social functions. And while it’s not accurate to suggest that journalism is dying or that any apparent golden age is over — concentration and bias have always been problems — it is accurate to say there’s something of a crisis going on — one largely based on a confusion of roles.
This is important because history has a vested interest in a healthy journalistic culture. Over the past century, history has increasingly come to rely on a buffer between the past (and recent past) and what happened yesterday, as facilitated by journalism.
Ferguson’s statement captures this perfectly: journalism in crisis means more work for both historians and informed, self-respecting citizens everywhere.
While Stewart’s reaction covers the other side: in becoming satirists, or non-funny opinion-spouting shadows of themselves, journalists shed their responsibility. True objectivity might be a fallacy but responsibility (or lack thereof) has very real implications.
All three roles are important and have a specific function in our present social formation. Is WikiLeaks to blame? It’s probably too soon to tell. But it has put stress on existing fractures that have the historical community intrigued but intimidated, journalists confused, and satirists pleading for the return of sanity and responsibility in rare, off-character moments of sincerity.
You are here — wherever that is.
While I have personally transcribed the interview between Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart, the official transcript from Fareed Zakaria’s show (air date 5 December 2010) is available here.
I shared my own thoughts on WikiLeaks back in August of this year.
My selection of “satire” over “comedy” is mostly informed by reasons set out by Paul Provenza in his book, ¡Satiristas! (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).
An odd response from Niall Ferguson, but coming from the political side of things and seeing that response in action (not recording anything), I can see why he is fearful.
It is an odd response, particularly considering all of the new non-textual forms of data and archival methods we now have. That all of the new gadgets and formats are revised virtually every year sort of hides this fact but we have more methods of witnessing events than we think we do.
What really surprises me is that he didn’t mention the Nixon tapes. Which is to say, we can certainly record things — everything, actually — but they can be tampered with… now that’s an argument!
I also wonder what he’ll say when WikiLeaks turns away from state material and goes after the private sphere — you know, documents we’d never see or have access to otherwise.