When the press doesn’t call bullshit

Nick Tanner, a British comic and critic, laments that fellow comics and even the newsmakers they joke about have had to take over the role of calling bullshit because the press has stopped. Of course, we know that well in the U.S., where Jon Stewart becomes a trusted voice in news precisely because he does call bullshit. Says Tanner:

But the serious question raised by the growth of comic news is whether the traditional source of investigative news journalism, the independent press, hasn’t been doing its job properly. In a recent lecture Armando Iannucci attacked the need for comics to criticise the abuse of power, remarking ‘this is not the sort of thing it should have been left to a comedian to say’. . . . The message seems clear: until the independent media becomes more robust in its treatment of those in power, it looks likely that much of the responsibility for analysing the news will rest in the hands of the comedians.

Now see Iannucci’s lecture, where he complains that the newsmakers themselves have taken to expressing themselves through humor and parody. He says::

This has come about for three reasons: politicians have stopped speaking to us properly, the media has stopped examining their actions in anything like a forensic way, and broadcast culture has become so watered down, so scared of fact, that people are less inclined to turn to anything other than entertainment for information.

Broadcast journalism today promotes itself not so much on what it talks about but on the method it uses: “Broadcasting 24 hours a day, correspondents in over 50 capital cities, giving you all the headlines every 15 minutes, up to six generations of journalists gathered in one newsroom, making you feel all the news you want to feel, even on Christmas Day.” Hi-tech software and speedy transmission makes everything instant news, but we lose sight of the skilled individuals who can process this random unstoppable flow of information and somehow construct a meaningful examination of it. We need narrative. . . .

My favourite quotation from the eminently quotable George Bush is a remark he made last year about the constant attacks on US troops in Iraq: “The insurgents are being defeated; that’s why they’re continuing to fight.” It’s a stunning reversal of all logic. Measuring success in terms of how far you are from success. An even stranger utterance came from Tony Blair at Labour’s 2004 Conference when he defended his actions by saying: “Judgments aren’t the same as facts. Instinct is not science. I only know what I believe.”

I only know what I believe. I find that one of the most chilling statements uttered by a seemingly rational politician. Apart from the fact that it overturns about 16 centuries of western philosophy and questions the entire principle of scientific inquiry, it’s also, surely, how the Taliban get through their day. . . .

There is an emptiness in public argument waiting to be filled. That’s where my lot come in again. If politicians fail to supply politics with content, is it any wonder people turn to other, more entertaining sources?

Or at least more honest.

About a year ago, I was at another Harvard roundtable wondering, whither news? And when