The Common Good
June 2004

Faux News

by Ryan Beiler | June 2004

Laughter may be the best medicine for bad news.

Liberals and conservatives agree-

Liberals and conservatives agree—the media is badly biased," opines The Daily Show’s "senior media analyst" Stephen Colbert. So what’s the cure for news that claims to be fair and balanced but is often distorted? Answer: Fake news that is clearly distorted but which turns the phrase "fair and balanced" on its head with equal-opportunity mockery—denying presidents, candidates, and pundits the dignity usually afforded them by mainstream media.

Jesus humiliated his opponents on occasion (Luke 13:17) and never hesitated to put leaders in their place (Matthew 23). Through his documentary films and short-lived television series, Michael Moore elevated to an art form the ability to take people who think they’re important and make them look dumb. His embarrassment of corporate America, however, left his shows (TV Nation, The Awful Truth) without sponsors—and a satire-shaped vacuum in an America already aching from a declining Saturday Night Live.

Comedy Central’s The Daily Show has stepped into the void. Anchor Jon Stewart was mocking Bush’s war a year before it was popular to do so, with coverage bearing titles such as "Mess O’Potamia" and "Rationalization: Iraqi Freedom," punching precision holes in the administration’s "mission accomplished" and "bring ’em on" bravado. When other networks were still broadcasting cheerleading embeds, the show’s derisive dissent was Prozac for post-protest depression.

When politicians say something dumb, most network anchors have the uncanny ability to keep a straight face. Not so on The Daily Show. When candidate Sen. John Kerry said, "If gas prices keep rising at the rate they are now, Dick Cheney and George Bush are going to have to carpool to work," Stewart, without comment, pauses for laughter—not with Kerry, but definitely at Kerry. He then says slowly, as if speaking to a child, "Actually, Sen. Kerry, the president doesn’t actually have to carpool to work—he lives where he works. It’s a house—the White House...." Stewart then goes on to dissect a Bush attack ad that distorts Kerry’s record on gas taxes. How’s that for fair and balanced?

The show also takes aim at the "real" news media itself. Says Stewart in one segment, "I love watching talented journalists who’ve worked their entire lives to get to the point where they’re in the White House press corps, only to find themselves turned into dictation machines." Remarking on the unusual aggressiveness with which reporters at the time were pursuing Bush’s National Guard record, he jabs, "I have one question for the press corps: Where the [bleeped] have you been?! Now you’re getting into this?! All of a sudden they have questions, and it’s about his Vietnam service. Guys, you’re like eight wars behind!"

Does all this mockery encourage cynicism? Maybe a little. The show has parodied MTV’s "Rock the Vote" campaign with segments titled "Mock the Vote." But overall it seems to be more about exposing the artifice of politics while implicitly affirming its importance. Serious issues—war, elections, etc.—are too important to take politicians or even the media at their word. "Washington is like Hollywood," comments Stewart, "but it matters." Someone needs to say, "the emperor has no clothes," or if necessary, to pull the emperor’s pants down.

FAUX NEWS even beats Fox News in the ratings. TV Guide reported in late 2003 that The Daily Show was averaging higher ratings in its 11 p.m. time slot than Fox News and each of the other major cable news networks among viewers ages 18 to 49. A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press supports this trend, finding that for 18-to-29-year-olds comedy shows such as The Daily Show rank nearly as high as local news shows and newspapers as the place they regularly learn about the election campaigns.

It’s a no-brainer why comedy competes with "real" news. Stewart complains about how boring C-SPAN is, saying they’re "missing a huge opportunity. More people would watch TV about their government if they just put the cameras in the rooms where things actually happen."

If we hope to inspire young and old to engage the issues of our day, this is the challenge. To communicate powerfully and effectively, we need to be creative, original, and yes—fun. Adds Stewart, "I’d trade all three C-SPANs for just one tape of Dick Cheney’s energy meetings. Or the brainstorming session that changed the word ‘assassination’ to ‘regime change.’ I’d even settle for some hidden camera footage of Donald Rumsfeld shopping for suits: ‘Got anything in gray? No, grayer—GRAYER!’"

If satire can be a vital tonic to those numbed by current events—a way of engaging the powers that be without going crazy—The Daily Show’s particular brand often has the aftertaste of a cable comedy network of, for, and possibly by adolescent boys. But I know of almost no other place where I can consistently go to laugh out loud and find incisive political satire verging on the subversive. —Ryan Beiler

Ryan Beiler is Web editor at Sojourners.

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