Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dana Milbank gives the Village sneer to Jon Stewart's interview of President Obama

The reaction by Washington Post star reporter Dana Milbank to Jon Stewart's interview with President Obama Wednesday is very telling: On the Daily Show, Obama is the last laugh 10/27/2010; the videos of the interview are available at that link.

I don't have a problem with comedy shows being a source of news, up to a point. Humor is and always will be an important way in which political ideas, attitudes and even news are communicated. That comedy venues like Stewart's Daily Show have become one of the highest quality sources of news is not only a compliment to Stewart and his Comedy Central associate Stephen Colbert. It's an indictment of the traditional media for their drastic decline in quality.

Getting news through entertainment programs is problematic, even when the news component is high quality. It promotes an image of politics as show business and public policy as a topic for cynicism. We should get both entertainment and quality hard news from television. But in our near entertainment-only TV environment in the US, we get news in spite of the entertainment context, not alongside it or in addition to it.

But Stewart on that show did what journalists should do, only sandwiched in with good-natured banter. He jammed Obama on whether he was delivering on the vision of his 2008 campaign. He called him when Obama's statement was obviously hot air. He got an explicit statement from Obama that he thought the filibuster was a bad thing and needed to be adjusted. Stewart even caught him in a kind of Freudian slip over Larry Summers when Obama said that Summers had done "a heckuva job."

Stewart also notably avoided "horse-race" questions, asking the President about his performance and about the expectations of the Democratic base.


Thise approach represents a very different mentality than that of the Beltway Village of which Dana Milbank is a very visible member. To the Village, "the left" is always contemptible, and a Democratic politician trashing "the left" is a sign of statesmanship. Certainly, the concerns of that contemptible group are not to be taken seriously. Milbank is also obviously concerned that Stewart didn't show the proper awe for the President that Village reporters practice:

The Daily Show host was giving Obama a tough time about hiring the conventional and Clintonian Larry Summers as his top economic advisor.

"In fairness," the president replied defensively, "Larry Summers did a heckuva job."

"You don't want to use that phrase, dude," Stewart recommended with a laugh.

Dude. The indignity of a comedy show host calling the commander in chief "dude" pretty well captured the moment for Obama. He was making this first-ever appearance by a president on the Daily Show as part of a long-shot effort to rekindle the spirit of '08. In the Daily Show, Obama had a friendly host and an even friendlier crowd. [my emphasis]
Milbank's sneering response to that moment is a good glimpse of the Village mentality. That incident is what Milbank led with in his column. The word "filibuster" does not appear in Milbank's column, though that was a genuinely newsworthy statement by the President. And where Stewart questioned Obama on the policy soundness of the health care reform, Milbank only discussed that in terms of Obama refuting the hated left; he doesn't tell us whether Stewart's challenges or the President's responses were well-founded or even accurate.

What Milbank found most comment-worthy was that Stewart called the President "dude"!!

Echoing stock Republican lines, Milbank mocks Obama and his base:

Stewart, who struggled to suppress a laugh as Obama defended Summers, turned out to be an able inquisitor on behalf of aggrieved liberals. He spoke for the millions who had been led to believe that Obama was some sort of a messianic figure. Obama has only himself to blame for their letdown. By raising expectations impossibly high, playing the transformational figure to Hillary Clinton's status-quo drone, he gave his followers an unrealistic hope. [my emphasis]
Milbank didn't seem to notice that Obama was "an able inquisitor" period. Or maybe he did and just didn't like that fact, since it shows what airheads and suck-ups so much of the Village press are. In Village-speak, calling Stewart someone who is acting "on behalf of aggrieved liberals", is a sneer of contempt. Milbank:

Obama replied that he was advised after the election that "two years from now, folks are going to be frustrated" -- a prediction he did not make public to his starry-eyed suporters at the time. [my emphasis]
Milbank also engages in a favorite practice of Village writers: doing theater criticism on the appearance:

"Is the difficulty," Stewart asked, "that you have here the distance between what you ran on and what you delivered? You ran with such, if I may, audacity.... yet legislatively it has felt timid at times."

Stewart had found the sore point between Obama and his base -- and Obama was irritable. "Jon, I love your show, but this is something where I have a profound disagreement with you," he said. "What happens," he added, "is it gets discounted because the presumption is, well, we didn't get 100 percent of what we wanted, we got 90 percent of what we wanted -- so let's focus on the 10 percent we didn't get." He said that a cancer patient in New Hampshire helped by the bill "doesn't think it's inconsequential."

"The suggestion was not that it's inconsequential," the comedian pointed out.

Obama leaned in and pointed at the host. "Your suggestion was that it was timid." [my emphasis]
Whether there might be actual policy justification of criticisms by the contemptible left (aka, the Democratic Party voting base) of the health care reform that actually passed, Milbank can't be bothered to even mention that. He does mention that the "gatekeeper of the disillusioned left" (Stewart) brought that up, but only in passing in the context of more theater criticism:

But when Stewart moved, politely, to point out weaknesses in the health-care legislation, Obama pointed at him again. "Not true!" the president argued.

Obama wore a displeased grin as Stewart diagnosed, with high accuracy, the administration's condition: "The expectation, I think, was audacity going in there and really rooting out a corrupt system, and so the sense is, has [the] reality of what hit you in the face when you first stepped in caused you to back down from some of the more visionary things?" [my emphasis]
At McClatchy News, where (out-of-step with institutions like the Washington Post) they still commonly practice journalism, David Lightman actually does discuss the substance of that issue in Why has GOP found health care law such a potent weapon? 10/27/2010. What a concept!

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