The Downside of Outsourcing Political Oversight to Comedians

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

At apparently the same time that I was writing my Dorf on Law post yesterday, the editorial board of The New York Times was reaching essentially the same conclusions.  Although they did not focus as much attention on the IRS non-scandal-scandal, they made the important point that this "week of scandals" that supposedly has changed everything is, in fact, a bunch of small-bore matters that have somehow been turned into a whole that is much bigger than its parts.  Even taking seriously the notion of "totality of the circumstances," there is still nothing but a disconnected handful of matters that Republicans are now screaming about.

As if to show that content does not matter, the show trials are already set to begin.  Today, the House Ways & Means oversight subcommittee will hold the first of what promises to be many, MANY hearings on the IRS's "targeting" of Tea Party groups.  (As I said yesterday, the notion that they were targeted because they are Tea Party groups is not the same thing as being politically targeted in the sense of being the victims of a political hit job.  But nuance left the building long ago, and it's not coming back.)  The chair of the subcommittee set the perfectly absurdist tone, saying: "I just refuse to believe that lower-level I.R.S. personnel were making these kinds of decisions."  That pretty much sums up the modern Republican Party: Decide in advance what is true, and refuse to believe anything else.  Why hold hearings, then?  It is certainly not about fact-finding.

As I pointed out yesterday, however, the hyperventilating about the IRS's mistakes is hardly limited to the right wing.  Democrats are "in no mood to defend the nation’s tax collector," as a news article in the Times put it this morning.  Even The Progressive, the monthly magazine published in Madison, Wisconsin that gamely carries the torch of LaFollette-style progressivism, jumped on the bandwagon.  In a podcast earlier this week, almost comically titled "Obama's Bad Nixon Impersonation," the magazine's editor declaimed against the "odious political witch hunt that was under way" at the IRS.  I understand that The Progressive has good complaints about Obama's policies (many of which echo my own critiques), but this is just insane.

Part of the larger problem, I think, is that we have reached the point in our country's history where there are no longer reliable sources of informed independent oversight of our political system.  Last year, I commented on the ridiculousness of the media's coverage of the Affordable Care Act case, which led to CNN's almost inevitable mistaken announcement that the Act had been struck down.  In that post and elsewhere, I have noted that (with rare exceptions) current news reporters simply lack the ability and knowledge to understand news stories, which leads them to default to meaningless he-said-she-said reporting.  (I am not, of course, claiming to be the only person to have noticed this problem.)

Comedians have always been an important part of the public's check on political power.  Even before there were court jesters, surely humor was an important source of power for those in the political opposition (formal or otherwise).  Now, however, we have reached the point where the only real sources of political commentary from a left-of-center perspective with any widespread impact at all are Comedy Central's two late-night "fake news" shows, hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  This, we are beginning to see more and more clearly, is a bad state of affairs.

As I pointed out in my post yesterday, Stewart has responded to this week's meta-narrative about a scandal-plagued Obama Administration by completely buying into the premise.  Again on Wednesday night's show (which, because I am currently in Austria, I did not see until about six hours ago online), Stewart talked about how the right wingers whom he has mocked now have some "legitimacy" in their complaints.

Only a week ago, Stewart himself was mocking the "Groundhog Day"-like Benghazi hearings that the Republicans were pushing, pointing out the Republicans' complicity in the actual underlying problems that led to the deadly attack last September.  Nothing has changed this week at all regarding the Benghazi situation, except that the release of government emails makes it even more clear that there was no coverup or anything "bigger than Watergate" that the Republicans had been trumpeting.  It would have been very much in character for Stewart to mock the Republicans' renewed outrage, as well as their attempts to paint a distorted broader picture of scandal.  Instead, he simply bought into the false narrative.

Why?  In one way, Stewart and his staff are extremely hard-working.  They do a great job of finding clips of politicians who opportunistically adapt their outrage in chameleon-like fashion.  Exposing hypocrisy is valuable, and "The Daily Show" does it better than anyone.  In another way, however, Stewart is extremely lazy.  When a story is in any way complicated, he tends to default to simplistic tropes that miss the real story.  Any time he talks about budgets, for example, he cannot stop himself from emphasizing the word trillion, as if the shear size of that number is independently significant.  Clearly, he and his staff bought into the same "political witch hunt" notion that The Progressive stumbled into.  It is completely unsupported by facts, but what an easy story to tell!

This, moreover, is hardly the first time that we have seen this mistake play out at 11pm on Monday through Thursday nights.  Several months ago, in a very public-spirited effort to improve the lives of disabled veterans, Stewart and his staff deplored the long delays that veterans have faced in their attempts to receive benefits to deal with their war-related injuries.  This is, again, a very admirable effort on Stewart's part.  However, he then claimed that the explanation could not possibly be that the relevant government offices are underfunded, because the budgets for those offices have recently gone up, not down.  Of course, the caseloads have also been rising, and those offices have never been given the resources to modernize and deal with the problem in a systematic way.  But that did not matter to Stewart.  "They have more money" became "They have all the money they need."

And it is not as if Stewart is holding back from making bigger-picture pronouncements.  His commentary on the backlog of veterans' claims included the broad statement that this failure threatened to support the conservative narrative that government can never do anything right.  Of course, if the self-proclaimed defender of government's role in society is constantly willing to skip the facts and go for the simplistic nonsense, then maybe the problem is not that government -- when given a fair chance -- cannot do anything right.  It could be that the supposed defenders of government punt away their chances to make pointed arguments.  (Stewart has, by the way, returned to this narrative more than once since he first rolled it out in the story about veterans.)

Sometimes, the easy laugh is the point.  For example, back in January, when Paul Krugman was making the case for the "big coin gambit," he engaged in a genuinely nasty back and forth with Stewart, who was mocking the idea of the one trillion dollar coins.  My take on this was that public confidence in the monetary system was too fragile to risk making everyone wonder how we can simply mint cartoonish coins to solve the problem.  In that context, Stewart's simplistic mocking served precisely the role that one would expect of a comedian: The first thing that makes people laugh is often the most powerful.

How is this week different?  As I noted above, there was nothing about what happened this week that should have been catnip to a comedian.  Especially given Stewart's recent track record on Benghazi, it would have been natural to continue to mock Republicans' inflated claims about a scandal.  In the IRS non-scandal-scandal, it would have been just as easy to mock the outrage at the supposed witch hunt -- "Wait a minute!  You're telling me that Tea Party groups claimed to be 'social welfare organizations,' and the IRS suspected that maybe they were really fronts for lobbying operations?  What an overreach!" -- as to adopt the crazy "targeting political opponents" meme that Stewart grabbed from Day One.

Returning to the title of today's post, the downside of our having people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert provide political oversight is not merely that they are ill-equipped to fill that role consistently well.  It is that they are really our only line of defense, at this point.  Because they often do what they do so very well, we can often think: "Well, sure, the Fourth Estate is almost completely dead.  But we really don't need them anymore."  Until we do.