I'm walking to the gate at Atlanta's Hartsfield airport, which is eerily quiet. Hovering television sets punctuate the long passageways, delivering small blasts of information like grim perfume ladies in a department store that's seen busier days. Newscasters are using words you don't ever hear in an airport, forbidden words that could get you arrested were you to so much as utter them there -- and suddenly, totally inappropriately, my mind screams, "Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah!" in a Monty Python falsetto.
This is exactly the sort of thing Jeff Greenfield is talking about on CNN when I reach my gate: ironic detachment -- of a generation that purportedly gets its news from late-night comedians, of the media in general. A round-table of irony experts has been assembled to discuss whether we are less serious than other generations, whether the shift from hard to soft news is the product of ironic detachment in media or the other way around. He shows a few somber Letterman and Leno clips, a few seconds from the soap operas and prime-time dramas that resumed their places on the airwaves this week, and asks somberly, "When will it be OK to laugh again?"
It's the kind of question that makes it at least possible to laugh when there's nothing to laugh about.
Greenfield is blaming something -- it's not entirely clear what -- on the evolution of the news in this country to a form of entertainment. "What happened to change news from hard to trivial?" he asks.
Richard Stolley is a former People magazine editor who once drafted a memo of priorities for the magazine that began with "Young is better than old, pretty is better than ugly" and ended with "Anything is better than politics." He blames it all on too much news. Greenfield turns to journalist Richard Reeves, who once had to publicly apologize for calling President Ford a "clown." Is he responsible for our detachment, for the shift from hard news to soft? Reeves blames it on Nixon. Then Greenfield blames it on late-night comedians.
Nic Robertson, a CNN correspondent in Afghanistan, calls in to explain that the banning of satellite dishes there has added to the introspective nature of the country. This strikes me as ironic, given the introspective nature of the discussion I'm listening to right now.
I'm not old enough to remember the first televised war, but I remember enough to know that Vietnam-era television was the blunt instrument that thrust the war into the American consciousness. My recollections of the second televised war, the made-for-TV Desert Storm, are more vivid; foremost among them is the sense that the grimmest aspects of that conflict, brought to you by Exxon, ended up on the cutting-room floor. Last week, we watched as television journalists struggled to make sense of the events as they happened and cope with them along with the rest of us. And yet within seconds of the tragedy, it had been christened as though by a Hollywood marketing executive, and music had been composed and graphics had been styled to drive home the sense of foreboding and fear.
Still valiantly trying to define what makes for appropriate humor where politics are concerned (which is in itself, of course, a joke), Greenfield implies that the humor of past generations, namely the one celebrated in HBO's "Band of Brothers," was inherently benign, that past generations found a kind of fuzzy, innocent solace in humor. They watched Jack Benny on TV and escapist comedies on the big screen to forget, if only temporarily, the awfulness of the present. A joke about army food was good-natured joshing, he suggests; a jab at the president is not.
Greenfield's plea: "How long will this last? Can we make light jokes, not ironic ones?"
Maybe, but it is questions like this that make it hard. Past generations didn't have to listen to journalists equate past generations with Spielberg- and Hanks-produced miniseries. Local news stations did not further "dramatize" drama with bombastic shark-attack music and sensationalist graphics done up in thick sans serif fonts; correspondents did not hold up the detritus of disasters for cameramen to get a closer look, or zoom in on lost shoes; and TV stations didn't have real live disaster footage from every conceivable angle, available to show again and again and again.
There was nothing funny about the events of last week, but there is a dark irony in the fact that there was something familiar about the wall-to-wall coverage that followed when the shock began to wear off. After all, the same names and faces expounded round-the-clock when O.J. Simpson made the slow trip up the 405 freeway, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, when Chandra Levy disappeared and her boyfriend the congressman wouldn't talk. Last week made the television news media look like the boy who had spent years crying Wolf Blitzer.
Here's what I think Greenfield's real question is: Did the news-as-entertainment trend somehow let last week's tragedy take us completely by surprise? It's a valid one. Journalists have a responsibility to inform the public with no regard to ratings. But whose responsibility is it to point it out when they don't? And what's the most effective way to do it? Something inconceivably horrible happened to all of us; does this mean that the powers that be should be spared all scrutiny?
No, but it takes having good aim and a clear view of the target for attempts not to misfire. Bill Maher, the rather mirthless host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect," had a Wile E. Coyote moment this week when a comment he made blew up in his face. In the same tone of mock outrage that marks the delivery of many comics, Maher said, "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly. We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly.''
The remark was precisely as funny as a million other TV talk-show lines, which is to say not very, but was deemed out of bounds. His target -- the U.S. servicepeople who we assume will soon be shot at -- was too broad, and worse, undeserving of criticism for actions for which they are not entirely responsible. Maher was forced to apologize. He explained that his criticism of U.S. military actions "was meant for politicians who, fearing public reaction, have not allowed our military to do the job they are obviously ready, willing and able to do, and who now will, I'm certain, as they always have, get it done.''
(It will be interesting to see if the exact same sentiments, expressed by a high-minded person in a high-minded publication, will cause a similar stir. "If the word 'cowardly' is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, rather than to those willing to die themselves to kill others." So writes Susan Sontag in the new New Yorker.)
Humor, particularly sarcastic and ironic humor, is a weapon against insincerity and exploitation. It has always been the principal weapon of the disenfranchised precisely because it is effective. And light jokes about, say, news anchors' hairstyles make a pretty dull weapon. Dark humor, cathartic release, gets darker as the times do. Jewish humor, the root, it might be argued, of our current sensibility, has always understood this. Irony is the last resort of the angry and powerless, and will not be going away soon.