First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
"Fair and Balanced": Who Else But Dennis Miller?
In all the soup of political commentary -- especially commentary that purports to contain humor -- one figure stands out above all the others for his fairness, wit, and, more often than not, wisdom.
I speak of Dennis Miller.
Right, I know, you hated his football commentaries back when he was on Monday nights. But he's not doing it anymore, so relax.
Miller's hip style of mockery first attracted attention on Saturday Night Live, when he was (arguably) the best-ever anchor of "Weekend Update."
They tried him on an evening talk show, but he crashed and burned very quickly, mostly because he really wasn't ready to handle interviews. He worked best in those days when he was reading from a script, allowing him always to find just the right pop-culture reference to clinch his point.
It was on HBO that he found his niche. Beginning each show with a monologue on some current event or trend, at some point he would say, "I don't want to get off on a rant here, but ..." and then the fireworks went off. His rants were collected into several books that sold quite well. There was a market for Miller's kind of irreverent libertarian social mockery, and I was firmly within it.
How easily his style could have evolved into the selective mockery of Michael Moore, or the sad self-righteousness of Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo.
While Moore has never been an honest commentator -- or particularly funny to anyone with even a trace of compassion for their fellow humans -- Franken was once funny, back when his humor was tinged with a deep layer of love and understanding, as in his Stuart Smalley sketches.
And Garofalo was one of my favorite performers (check her out in the wonderful comedy The Truth about Cats and Dogs) because, while her persona was always really really smart, she never thought that made her better than other people.
Gone are those days. Moore is ever smugger as he crafts new distortions and prevarications under the guise of "documentary" "humor."
Franken calls people liars merely for choosing to believe a different set of statistics -- Franken apparently believes that any "fact" that he thinks might support what he already believes is a priori the truth, and anyone who disagrees with it is a "liar."
And Garofalo has, sadly, reached the point where she actually believes that anyone who disagrees with her is "immoral."
Folks, it's the first mark of fanaticism when you assume all your opponents are either stupid or immoral.
Even if it's true, it's very bad manners to say so, and doesn't promote rational discussion.
Which brings me back to Dennis Miller. Well, no, not quite.
In these sad days, the major network news teams are almost uniformly liberal. CNN, of course, is run even to the left of the "mainstream" media -- has there ever been a rational, balanced story on, say, the environment on CNN?
Meanwhile, Fox News is excoriated for being biased precisely because conservative and liberal views are both presented -- with accurate labeling.
But Fox deserves criticism for the shrillness of its primetime stars. While Brit Hume, Chris Wallace, Shepard Smith, and Neil Cavuto are rational, able to bear disagreement -- even able to tolerate having someone else hold the limelight for a moment -- the primetime headliners are an obnoxious crew indeed.
Greta Van Susteren's grating questions, which always seem to be off on some island whose map only she seems to have, and Sean Hannity's relentless dimness, which leads him to keep interrupting to harp on the same irrelevant points regardless of what his guests actually say, I can't really see that they've improved on the left-leaning methods of the "mainstream" media.
What is the difference between the "mainstream" press's nagging President Bush to "apologize" at a press conference and Hannity's pounding at some poor hapless schlemiel to accept his phrasing of a meaningless question? When the press demands the right to force someone else to say their words, they have left honest reporting far behind.
And the worst is Bill O'Reilly. What was once refreshing has sunk into the same trough of Don't-argue-with-me-I'm-more-famous-than-you that plagues such former journalists as Ted Koppel.
O'Reilly divides the world into good guys and bad guys, but he treats them all the same -- rudely. Want to finish a sentence? Wrong show. Believe him when he says, "You've got the last word"? You haven't been watching lately, sucker.
When kneejerk liberal Alan Colmes is the most rational voice in prime time, something is wrong. Is this really the best that conservativism can offer?
Don't tell me about Rush Limbaugh, please. I was amused sometimes at his hefty sense of humor -- until I saw him put up a picture of then-Senator Carol Moseley Braun and both he and his audience laughed ... simply at her picture.
His comments immediately afterward made it clear that she was his regular whipping boy -- er, girl. And why was this? Was she the most foolish liberal in Congress? That's doubtful.
It was obvious to me that the reason she was such a choice target was her race, though her gender doubtless contributed. Limbaugh went off my list right then, along with the whole crew of dittoheads.
I'm left with only a handful of commentators I think are worth listening to on the broadcast and cable media -- Brit Hume, Chris Wallace, Shepard Smith, and Neil Cavuto leading the pack. No, not a pack -- it's a den.
But none of these guys is funny. I know, Cavuto tries.
At last I'm back to Dennis Miller.
He's now hosting a show on CNBC that airs and repeats several times a week.
He's still sharp and funny. And, sometimes, quite crude -- shockingly so for some of his studio audience. But they bleep the bad words, and he's punished for really bad taste by deathly silence from his audience (though as often as not I shamelessly laugh).
His rants still sing -- he hasn't forgotten how to be funny.
But, after years of empty "interviews" with celebrity guests on his HBO show, Miller has suddenly emerged as the best political interviewer on television.
Unlike Letterman, who interviews liberals to give them a hearing and interviews conservatives to make them look stupid, Miller treats all his guests, on either side of an issue, with unfailing courtesy.
I watched him interview a charming spokesperson for PETA and, while Miller made it clear that he was unpersuaded by her, he did the unthinkable: He let her speak her piece.
His questions were, if sometimes underinformed, never toadying, and often quite pointed. They were not easy to answer, and when he disagreed, he said so.
But she had her say. There was no entrapment. Conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and those of even less savory political persuasions are not "grilled" or "skewered" a la O'Reilly; nor does Miller try to show off that he's more of an expert than the experts, as Van Susteren does.
He admits he's a regular guy. And, well, he's right -- he is. Sometimes he's right, sometimes he's wrong. Sometimes he gets it, sometimes he doesn't. But he states his opinions cleverly and entertainingly -- even if they're unpopular -- while allowing his guests the same courtesy.
Compare his show to Bill Maher's various foolfests, and you realize that at the end of a Miller show, you might actually know more about the subject, or at least about your opponent's attitudes, than you did when you tuned in.
The show is funny and useful.
Naturally, the leftist organization FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) attacked his show before it even aired, because it was obvious that conservative voices might actually be presented. But I regard that as a mark in favor of Miller's show. After all, in our era of Newspeak, any group demanding that reporting be "fair" is almost certain to attack precisely those who actually are.
And let's remember that while Miller can take positions often called "conservative" -- he supports the war against terrorism, for instance -- he is also quite liberal on other topics. In short, he's kind of like me -- he doesn't feel any obligation to follow any party line. He goes where the evidence and his own reason take him.
That's as good a qualification for a commentator, humorist, and political talkshow host as I can think of.
"Dennis Miller" airs on CNBC (a cable channel) daily at nine p.m., but I haven't yet figured out how to predict which shows are new and which are repeats.
Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.