Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Ripped from the Headlines
My first reaction was to laugh out loud.
It seemed the most honest and appropriate response, given that it's what I would've done had I been sitting in my living room instead of my place of work. Had I been curled up on my couch in front of the television, like everyone else in America, I would've cracked up as Jon Stewart's face contorted into an expression that conveyed confusion, disbelief and derision in equal parts. I would've joined in the roaring laughter of the audience, as Stewart and the Daily Show's staff of writers once again aimed their acuminous wit in the direction of the television news media -- in particular, an on-air moment so unintentionally comical that it just cried out to be made fun of. I would've no doubt taken secret satisfaction in a fake news show again holding a legitimate news show up to public ridicule, and in doing so proving itself to be the more respectable of the two.
I would've loved every second of it -- so did it really make any difference that the person they were making fun of was me?
I've always heard it said that you're not anybody in this business until you've been fired at least once. Granted, if this axiom holds true then I'm the most powerful man in television news, but these days I'm pretty sure one's relevance -- journalistic, cultural or otherwise -- can actually be measured by whether or not he or she has been ripped apart on the Daily Show. Many in the media now consider it a badge of honor to find themselves in Jon Stewart's comedic crosshairs; all but the most humorless reactionaries (basically Bill O'Reilly) at the very least accept such a possibility as an occupational hazard. Still, when you actually find your work, your words -- to say nothing of your face -- up there on the chopping block, it's a little like being back in elementary school and finding yourself in the awkward position of having to either laugh along with everyone else at the fact that your pants just split up the back, or risk looking incredibly stupid.
So I laughed.
I sat at my desk and watched the clip of the preceding night's Daily Show, and giggled my ass off, even leaning back in my chair and raising both fists above my head in a little display of triumph. I had hit the big time. For a brief moment, even though the cool kids were making fun of me, I felt like one of them. There was solidarity in the fact that we both found the same person ridiculous: me.
And then of course, the initial commotion died down and I took some time to think about it. You might say I went through the Kubler-Ross stages of nervous self-consciousness.
Something probably worth mentioning -- I'm many awful things, but I don't believe a hypocrite to be one of them. I have thick skin and am almost impossible to offend. I hold no sacred cows that immediately come to mind and have always believed wholeheartedly that anything can be poked fun at -- anything. What's funny is funny -- no matter how tasteless or presumably offensive it may be to the sensibilities of polite society or anyone else for that matter. As the t-shirt once proclaimed: Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.
It would be flat-out wrong to say that at any point since first hearing the words that I'd written and seeing the story that I'd produced turned into a punchline have I been pissed off about it. I essentially gave my superiors exactly what they had asked for -- knowing full well that it wouldn't be the finest hour for myself or the anchor charged with reading the story (the anchor whose actual face would eventually wind up on the Daily Show, while I alone would bear the burden of knowing my particular role in such an indiscretion). That said, I accept that what I wrote -- the exact words that Jon Stewart thought hysterical enough to warrant time on his show -- were indeed so painfully awful that I cringed as I wrote them. The entire story was a stupid idea -- a journalistic "reach" of caricaturish proportions. Put simply, the work I put my name on, whether I agreed with the assignment or not, deserved to be ripped.
And that's the problem.
Journalists, like everyone else, make mistakes. They screw up. There are blooper reels lining the file rooms of every news department in America, and most of them are a riot. But the Daily Show rarely points out those moments which happen by accident -- that's because it doesn't have to. These days, even in the product of the most respected and venerated media outlets in the country, there are entire swaths of outright absdurdity -- intended absurdity. The hard work for which journalists aren't simply paid, but likewise are expected to hold in high esteem and to a standard of excellence befitting their incredible responsibility is instead tainted from conception. It's allowed to be a bad joke from the get-go: the one forced to bring it to fruition risking a quiet embarrassment; the one whose face presents it, risking public mockery.
Jon Stewart ripped my work, and it was damn funny, but also a little sad. When it comes to making fun of the news media, the Daily Show has too much material to work with these days -- and that's not the show's fault.