LENO CROSSING OVER?

WaPo seems concerned about a “new” phenomenon:

It was a small moment, perhaps, but one that did not go unnoticed. The man announcing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s historic triumph in California’s gubernatorial “Total Recall” campaign was none other than late-night talk show host Jay Leno.

Who better than Jay Leno? His appearance brought full circle a candidacy that was announced on the comedian’s show back in August, thereby signaling that this campaign would be unlike any other in its odd amalgam of entertainment and politics.

But Tuesday night there was a difference. This time Leno appeared in the heart of Republican election-night headquarters, before a crowd of celebrating Schwarzenegger supporters and a riveted national television audience.

***

But there’s more. Wednesday night Schwarzenegger appeared on “The Tonight Show” once again, this time as governor-elect.

Should all this make us uncomfortable? What is Leno in this instance? A talk show host? A facilitator? Or a political impresario?

***

“This seems another step in the same muddy ruin of politics that we’re trekking through,” said Todd Gitlin, a journalism and sociology professor at Columbia University. “It’s the same part played by Oprah in the process of sanitizing and normalizing Schwarzenegger as a legitimate politician.” Schwarzenegger appeared with wife Maria Shriver on “Oprah,” in one of his very few televised interviews during the campaign.

And Gitlin doesn’t like this development. “I object to the power they harbor in the first place, and I object to the further erosion to such line as there has been between the spectacle and the political process.”

***

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, believes that Leno — along with other late-night talk show hosts — crossed the line from entertainment into political journalism a long time ago, and needs to play by the rules of journalism.

“If you have a big show like Jay Leno and reach a lot of people, you have the power to influence hearts and minds. You have a responsibility to the public,” Rosenstiel said. “If you want to play Peter Jennings, then you have to play by some of the same rules as Peter Jennings, even if 99 percent of your show is pure entertainment. You cross a line when you start to get into this other game. If his responsibility is to entertain people, and it ends there, maybe he should refrain from having political people on the air.”

Gitlin said this mixing of entertainment and politics will have consequences, and while they may not be entirely foreseeable, he doubts any of them will be positive. “These shows are in effect our version of political parties. They’re venues where politics happens. This is inordinate power for people who find it unexceptional that a Schwarzenegger should presume to want to be governor. This is a very slippery slope, and we’re way down it.”

Oh, please. The late night shows–and indeed, the entertainment industry generally–have been part of the political scene for as long as I can remember and surely before that. Stand-up comedy has used politics as a main focal point since at least the time of Lenny Bruce–and Will Rogers was doing it well before that. Television comedy has been deeply political since at least “All in the Family.” Popular music since at least the late 1960s. None of this is even remotely new or corrupting.

Jay Leno is an entertainer. He has no professional obligation whatsoever to be “objective.” If his audience perceives him to be too slanted to the left or right, those on the other side will drift away.

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. jim says:

    What are “rules of journalism”? Not the ones the Post follows I hope. Or the LA Times or Rush for that matter.

  2. Paul says:

    Stand-up comedy has used politics as a main focal point since at least the time of Lenny Bruce-

    dude… start with at last Voltaire. 😉

  3. Norbizness says:

    Let’s not forget about the politically charged situation comedy of Full House, Just the Ten of Us, Blossom, or Growing Pains. When Kirk Cameron started shouting “We’re Here! We’re Queer! Get Used To It!” at Alan Thicke, it was really a seminal moment in television history.

    And Leno is just an ass-kissing buffoon. It’s his show.