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'She Was Black as the Night…' | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

'She Was Black as the Night…'

My new Think Again column is called “When It Comes to Bruce Springsteen, Chris Christie Is a Big, Stupid Idiot,” and you can find it here.

Alter-reviews:
I saw David Johansen at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend. It was the same two man show David’s been doing around town—I reviewed it when I saw him a few weeks ago at Terminal 5—and a grand time will be had by all, even if you see it every few weeks. Out of his many personas, David has developed into a grand old man of post-pre-punk and sings mostly blues standards and old David Johansen gems, to a bunch of people who really appear to appreciate it. I can’t imagine that he ever expected to end up like this, but it strikes me as a really pleasant way to make a living.

I came to town to attend Nora Ephron’s memorial service—which was so moving I lack the words—perfectly timed and (almost) scripted by Nora herself—and stayed to catch one of the three shows that Steve Earle has organized to celebrate the centenial birth of Woody Guthrie at City Winery. I caught Steve with Diana Jones, Tim Robbins and John Hammond Jr. If you can get in tonight, he'll have Billy Bragg and Amy Helm among others. I am also hearing terrific things about the Ronny Spector show that is running there on Saturday nights—there are three more of them I believe—but I am back at the beach.

Here’s Reed.

Punchlining the News
by Reed Richardson

Louie CK has one of the most nimble comedic minds in the business, yet he has rarely needed something so pedestrian as an old-fashioned punchline for his outrageously funny, and often just plain outrageous, routines to work. But what he’s now achieving on his eponymously-named TV show, “Louie,” on FX, transcends even his stellar stand-up work.

Having just starting its third season (the second season was recently released on DVD), the show, which Louie continues to write and direct, has pushed into newer, deeper, dramatic waters than in previous seasons. Indeed, to me, the short snippets of his character performing stand-up are now the least interesting part of the show. For, off the stage, he’s creating a world that combines the mundane, absurd, and crude into a sublime, why-am-I-laughing-so-hard amalgam. In short, it’s very good, though I’m not sure I’d go as far as Emily Nussbaum over at the New Yorker, whose rave review of the show is gushing, to put it mildly.

Still, there’s no denying that, as far as comedies on basic cable go, “Louie” is pretty much in a class by itself, as evidenced by the equal parts hilarious and disturbing final scene from this season’s second episode (so, so NSFW). Louie’s scene partner here, the fantastic Melissa Leo, is on fire, delivering a raunchy cri de coeur that bemoans a, shall we say, lack of reciprocity on Louie’s part when it comes to performing a certain act of sexual congress. During this tirade, Leo’s spurned character gathers up her frustration into a ball and, echoing so many rabid right-wingers, irrationally lobs it at the biggest, most convenient target she can think of. “What’s wrong with this country?” she asks rhetorically after being left unsatisfied, before concluding in disgust, “O-bahm-a.” (Oddly, the president’s name was also invoked in the season debut as well, when a fellow patient of Louie’s in the hospital—an old woman lying on a gurney in the scene’s background—incongruously screams out “What about Obama!”) It feels almost like a throwaway joke, tucked in so tight you could almost miss it, but that kind of effortlessness demonstrates the show’s pitch perfect writing and acting. And, mea culpa, this scene does end with a nice punchline, but that joke really arrives at the episode’s denouement rather than its—ahem—climax.

Sure, some might dismiss Louie’s show simply because of these moments of “obscene” humor, but it’s worth pointing out that even Sigmund Freud understood the almost mystical power of “smut,” as he quaintly called it. “Strictly speaking, we do not know what we are laughing at,” he writes in his 1905 book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. “With all obscene jokes we are subject to glaring errors of judgment about the ‘goodness’ of the jokes…but they have immense success in provoking laughter.”

Louie, of course, mines other veins of everyday life for laughs, but whether he’s examining the modern male’s selfish sexual mores in the cab of a pick-up truck or laying bare the tender, awkward, excruciating end of a relationship in a coffee shop, there’s a common thread at work. It’s an earnest need to tell what Freud termed “tendentious” jokes, where some larger societal taboo, convention, or authority is held up for criticism or mockery. It’s a kind of courageous, truth-telling comedy that is more powerful and more valuable than a three-camera, soundstage sitcom full of “trivial” or “innocent” jokes that strive just to be clever yet not to offend or antagonize.

In many ways, this intellectual dichotomy reminds me of modern journalism. While few stand-up comics still rely upon a steady diet of one-liners to feed their onstage routines, the mainstream culture of journalism—most especially that of political journalism—has now thoroughly embraced a kind of instant, constant barrage of context-free news zingers. It’s a natural progression downward, I guess. Why bother with writing up another standard campaign trail horserace story when you can just retweet competing candidates’ soundbites or stick them in scrolling screen chyron and move on to the next bit of minutiae?

What can get lost in this mad scramble, though, is the news judgment to know when trying to be first is less important that trying to be right. If ever there was a news event where this needed to be recognized, the recent Supreme Court ruling on Obama’s complex health care reform was it. Yet we still saw news organizations sacrificing analysis and insight for haste. The results, as we now know, were not a shining moment for a couple of major news organizations. Tom Goldstein, over at the excellent SCOTUSblog performed a thorough, minute-by-minute autopsy of the breakdowns in coverage, but his primary conclusion was pretty simple. CNN and Fox News stumbled because they “treat[ed] the decision as a breathless ‘breaking news’ event, despite the fact that everyone knew when the opinion was going to be released (and the mandate won’t take effect until 2014), while at the same time.”

Over at the New Republic, Amy Sullivan casts about as to why the media loves to obsess over these pseudo-scoops and nails how this seconds-matter mindset is subsuming every kind of news coverage:

"[I]f this is just about bragging rights, it needs to stop. Now. And not just because it can lead to some outlets rushing to report incorrect information, as CNN and FOX did with the recent Supreme Court decision on health care reform. But because the race to be first is no longer just a feature of news coverage but often the main factor driving it."

Defenders of the breathless, go-go ‘Breaking! Developing!’ news culture took issue with Sullivan’s column, however, in a follow-up article in Adweek. Joe Wiesenthal, deputy editor at the fast-moving news and aggregator site Business Insider, offered up a less-than-subtle riposte, appropriately, via Twitter: “Is a debate really happening about whether speed matters? NEWFLASH: News is a game of Galaga. You just effin' keep blasting fast all day.” Whereas BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith acknowledged that the public release of a Supreme Court decisions wasn’t a scoop, “technically,” he then tried to link being first to report with “great explanatory reporting.” Veteran New York Times media journalist David Carr, whose publication I think most people would prefer over BuzzFeed when it comes to reading “great explanatory reporting,” has notably said this “race to be first, especially in commodity news, is not nutritionally advantageous to readers.”

However, there is one constituency overlooked by Sullivan and most other media observers that really, really appreciates getting important news just a few seconds before everyone else—stock traders. And as the SCOTUSblog article points out, some money definitely changed hands directly because of CNN and Fox News’s mistakes:

"Because the [Affordable Care] Act is important to stock prices, stock traders will have a very rare opportunity to arbitrage the conflicting media reports and the fact that no one outside the Court has the opinion. The market had been betting against the mandate surviving. That would have been bad for hospitals (which would lose revenues) and good for many insurers (which could be more selective in their customers). [At 10:07, when first, incorrect news reports come out] hospital stock prices begin to spike: Hospital Corp. of America, the nation’s largest private hospital chain, quickly rises from $27.38 to $29.35. Many insurance stocks start to tumble: United Health Group falls from $58.69 to $55.73."

By 10:15am, however, as CNN and Fox News were finally reeling in their initial, erroneous reports, United Health’s stock price had rebounded to $59.00. While it wasn’t exactly “Trading Places”-level money, it’s worth noting that during those roughly eight minutes where conflicting and confusing news reports were both being broadcast, more than 2.6 million shares of United Health Group alone were sold off and bought as the company’s market cap swung down and then back up nearly $2.3 billion.

Nevertheless, the event’s impact upon a few health care-related stock prices is pretty small beer. The bigger picture is that the media’s need for speed increasingly feeds shallow political campaign coverage, and the campaigns know it and exploit it. Why else would the Romney campaign’s digital director, 32-year-old Zac Moffatt, say this in an AdWeek story back in May:

“I definitely think Twitter has and will have a huge impact on this election, but it has to be recognized that, even with all the talk, even if you had the greatest Twitter strategy out there, I’m not sure you would win on that alone. In fact, I know you wouldn’t.”

Well, thank goodness for small favors, I guess. Maybe voters, the overwhelming majority of which won’t have any direct or indirect interaction with Twitter, will still play an important role in the elections this November. Of course, it’s easy to chalk this kind of boastful talk up to professional hubris (and, let’s be honest, there are probably tech people in the Obama campaign who think the same thing), but Moffatt is undoubtedly right that Twitter is already having a huge impact on the upcoming election’s news coverage. Even those that exist inside the bubble say it’s plain to see.

No doubt, this evolution can seem attractive to the mainstream press, since a) it typically requires less resources and b) short Twitter posts leave little purchase for claims of news bias to take hold. But the danger for journalism lies in the fact that the atomization of the news hole into discrete, 140-character chunks makes its purpose increasingly obsolete. After all, political campaigns now have the same publishing capability on Twitter and the Internet—and often larger audiences—as newspapers and TV networks. And how much context, really, can a reporter add when retweeting a campaign spokesman?

So, political journalism is caught in something of a professional Catch-22. To satisfy a news culture that, more and more, prizes speed and brevity above all else is to embrace those same platforms that minimize, if not eliminate, the real value proposition of the media in our democracy—contextual, truthful analysis and holding those in authority responsible for their words and deeds. Parroting the pithy comments of others while adding your own doesn’t make someone a worthwhile journalist anymore than simply repeating a bunch of glib punchlines, without any set-up, makes someone a funny comedian. To reach its full potential, journalism, like comedy, must be tendentious stuff, in other words. And when it isn’t, well, that’s no laughing matter.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

Mail:

J. R. Taylor
Washington, D.C.

Dr. Alterman:

Enjoyed your "Fearmaking, Then and Now" Think Again, and was inspired by it to read Darwin Teilhet's novel The Fear Makers, which was -- legally and somewhat otherwise -- related to the 1958 red scare movie The Fearmakers that your column described. You might enjoy comparing the two without having to row through all 267 pages of the former.

From your able synopsis of the movie: Dana Andrews plays "Alan Eaton, once a PR executive, now a Korean War veteran just released from a North Korean prison camp where he was tortured by communist prison guards. In the film’s first scene, in which Eaton is flying home to Washington, he happens to be seated next to a nuclear physicist who preaches nuclear disarmament, and warns Eaton that PR companies have begun to manipulate public opinion just as often as they reflect it. He just so happens to be looking for a good PR man."

Now the novel: Published May 1945, so Eaton was of course a vet of WWII, not Korea, but he had never been a POW, let alone tortured or brainwashed. Instead he was a famous, highly decorated, and severely wounded war hero, just out of hospital after long treatment, though still sporadically amnesiac. Before he enlisted, his firm wasn't in PR; it did opinion polls only. In further difference from the movie, the man Eaton meets on the train (not plane) to D.C. is not a nuclear physicist but claims to be a "magazine representative," and is no pacifist, nor "communist fellow-traveller." Many of his remarks are racist, antisemitic, or antiunion, and though he's not heard from after page 7, he does (as in the movie) turn out to be linked to the new owners of Eaton's firm.

These owners (who did, as in the movie, murder Eaton's partner) are not (as in the movie) "[messing] with public opinion polls so that the communists can one day take over America," but busily rigging polls and organizing racist, antisemitic, and other miscellaneous whispering campaigns in support of an antiunion politician in Michigan. Nothing is said in these campaigns (or anywhere else in the book) about communism -- the preferred line of attack is to contrast "greedy" union members with selfless boys in uniform. In the end we find that the PR villains, like so many "modern-day right-wing PR mavens," are apolitical, and only in it for the money.

A couple of further facts and one opinion:

According to my copy ("Pocket Book No. 148,656, 696") of The Fear Makers, it was an April 1946 selection of the Labor Book Club, one of several attempts during that period at a left alternative to the Book of the Month Club. (As the preacher almost said: Irony of ironies, all is irony.)

Four of the book's fifteen significant characters are Jewish or black; none of these -- unlike nine of the other characters -- are in the movie, not even in WASP or other transformations.

Though his heart may have been in the right place, there are many good and tedious reasons for the obscurity of Darwin Teilhet, novelist. For more enjoyable reading of this genre and period, stick to Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, or even Cornell Woolrich.

Mike Silverman
NY

I saw David Bromberg in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 70’s and he was good. I met my wife at Stephen Talkhouse in the 80’s and she’s better. Thanks for the memories.

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