The Real Fake News

Speak Fake To Power

The cast and writers of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show have taken on an awesome assignment. While delivering biting satire on the events of the day, they are also savagely exposing the journalistic failure of the conventional media.

Anchor, Jon Stewart, is fond of referring to the program as the “fake” news. He displays an abundance of modesty that suggests that he truly doesn’t grasp the impact this program has on its viewers and its conventional news counterpart. Peter Jennings, in naming Stewart the ABC Person of the week, said that he is

“…the man who often says in public what the rest of us tend to say only in the newsroom.”

The recognition the program receives belies Stewart’s protests that all he does is a funny show on a comedy network that follows puppets making crank phone calls. The show has won five Emmys. It won a Peabody award for election coverage. The Columbia Journalism Review included Stewart on its list of the nation’s 10 most influential political reporters. Newsday placed Stewart on their list of the 20 media players who will most influence the 2004 campaign. Ranking lower on the list were the likes of Tim Russert, Ted Koppel, and Sean Hannity, among others. And yet, when Stewart is confronted with compliments about his strikingly funny presentation of important social events, his response is that

“…that either speaks to the sad state of comedy or the sad state of news. I can’t figure out which one.”

I’m going to have to go with the latter.

The Daily Show’s popularity is significant and growing. It has averaged about 1 million viewers per episode this season, surpassing the total number of viewers for real cable networks like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. This audience is not, as Bill O’Reilly tagged them, a bunch of “stoned slackers”. According to the National Annenberg Election Survey, Daily Show viewers know more about election issues than people who regularly read newspapers or watch television news. They are 78 percent more likely than the average adult to have four or more years of college education. O’Reilly’s audience is only 24 percent more likely to have that much schooling.

Which is the Real Fake News?

People turn to trusted sources to deliver the information they consider important about their lives and their world. And young people are increasingly turning to The Daily Show. Stephen Colbert, a Daily Show correspondent, has said that he doesn’t believe that viewers learn anything from the show. He contends that, if they weren’t already knowledgeable about political and social affairs, they wouldn’t get the jokes. This is certainly true, but it is possible for well informed persons to become better informed. The Daily Show does this often by juxtaposing a news event with additional relevant information in a way that other news outlets do not. For instance, earlier this year they played a video that aired on most news programs of Bush praising the productive spirit of the American worker in front of warehouse shelves chock full of the fruits of their labor. However, The Daily Show was the only broadcast that aired the camera zooming out to reveal that the scene of the fully stocked shelves was actually a painted backdrop. And in front of the president’s podium was a stack boxes with tape covering the words “Made in China”.

The evidence that The Daily Show is educating or enhancing the education of its viewers is borne out by the fact that viewers are choosing it as a source for news. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cited The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live as a place where they regularly learned presidential campaign news. By contrast, 23 percent of the young people mentioned ABC, CBS or NBC’s nightly news broadcasts as a source.

The Daily Show has proven that it is a trustworthy purveyor of the news. Unfortunately, the “News” has done no such thing. With news fabricators like Steven Glass (New Republic), Jack Kelley (USA Today) and Jayson Blair (New York Times), representing only the fraternity of those who were caught, the mainstream media’s credibility is in freefall. Dan Rather’s sloppy reportage on the Texas Air National Guard’s special treatment of young Lt. Bush helps to speed the descent, as does Fox’s Carl Cameron who posted a false Kerry story on Fox’s web site by accident.

Even worse is when the government and the media work in concert to deceive. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that

“…the General Accounting Office concluded that the Department of Health and Human Services illegally spent federal money on what amounted to covert propaganda by producing videos about the Medicare changes that were made to look like news reports. Portions of the videos, which have been aired by 40 television stations around the country, do not make it clear that the announcers were paid by HHS and were not real reporters.”

WTVF in Nashville is one of the stations that aired the video. They later admitted that they learned of the segment’s fraudulent sourcing from watching The Daily Show’s coverage of the matter.

Recently, Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire. This program should be added to the curriculum of all journalism schools. From the very beginning, Stewart ripped into the famous bickerers and was unrelenting throughout. In the belly of the beast, Stewart accused them of being pawns to the politicians and corporations adding “…You’re part of their strategies. You are partisan…what do you call it…hacks.” He lamented that they are doing “…theater when you should be doing debate.” When Tucker Carlson belittled him by suggesting that he get a job at a journalism school, Stewart replied saying “You need to go to one.” Most memorable, however, was Stewart’s response to Carlson’s insult that “… you’re more fun on your show. Just my opinion.” Stewart fired back “You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.” The next episode of Crossfire had co-host Robert Novak coming to Carlson’s defense declaring that he thinks Stewart is not funny, and that he knows Stewart is uninformed. He did not say how he knows this. Maybe he disagrees with Stewart’s pet name for him: the Douche Bag of Liberty.

This kind of uncensored honesty is almost never seen in the conventional press. But maybe it is just what is needed now. USA Today reported last year that

“Public confidence in the media, already low, continues to slip. Only 36%, among the lowest in years, believe news organizations get the facts straight, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows.”

While esteem for the media is spiraling ever-lower, respect for The Daily Show continues to grow. It receives awards for both its humor and its news content. And it performs the function of a media watchdog, alerting us to the hypocrisy, collaboration, and contrivance of the corporate-dominated media.

If it seems depressingly ironic to you that the mainstream media is now being monitored and corrected by Comedy Central’s “fake” news, the only advice I have is to watch The Daily Show. It might cheer you up for at least half an hour.


5 thoughts on “The Real Fake News

  1. Don’t forget these flops which provide fodder for satirists and unease for the ones who trust mainstream media:

    Mike Barnicle, booted from the Boston Globe for (among other thing) fabricating Alan Dershowitz as saying “I love Asian women, don’t you? They’re so submissive”. Now Barnicle appears regularly on MSNBC, without the appendage “disgraced fabricator” permanently attached to him a la Glass and Blair.

    Wen Ho Lee, or how the Times stopped worrying and learned it didn’t have to apologize for ruining anyone’s life.

    Half-baked apologies by the “liberal” NYT and WaPo over the rush to war in Iraq.

  2. Thanks. There are certainly many more examples of media fakeness. We need to remind everyone of this and that there are alternative sources for news.

  3. It’s not that I use the Daily Show as my main source of info. Usually, though, I’ll hear at least one story that I didn’t hear about from the networks. Also, unlike the networks, where the anchors all have the same take on every story (amazing coincidence), Jon Stewart looks at it from a different perspective (his own). It’s weird, but you have to pretend to be fake to report the truth.

  4. Indeed, the nets do all have the same take, which in many cases is no take. They exercise a perverse notion of fairness that calls for taking “both” sides even when there isn’t another side. Joshuah Bearman put it well writing

    …presenting contrasting information as if it’s equally important is, in fact, the false representation…..don’t quote people who are lying just to have “both sides” represented.

  5. I haven’t trusted traditional news sources since the NYT reported after the first presidential debate that there was, pretty much, a debate. Maybe it’s my age but I thought the NYT was the bastion of liberal neews. I’m not a big Clinton fan , but if either of the Clintons had ever looked or acted that stupid, there would have been such outrage. We have state media, and it is incredibly boring. I am cancelling Direct TV. The next step is to throw the TV into the land fill. “They” are doing us a favor. It’s always been crap, just better packaging

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