When fake and ‘real’ news collide

By in DC, Media

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 2.28.54 PMAs interest in Brian Williams’ self-aggrandizing statements waned following the announcement of his six-month suspension from NBC News, the public – and the media – turned to the disclosure that Jon Stewart would be ending his 15-year reign as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show later this year.

No two broadcasters better illustrate the intersection of news and entertainment in today’s media landscape than the anchor who faked his bio and the fake anchor who reported the news.

It’s ironic enough that Stewart’s departure from Comedy Central’s fake news show should be treated as actual news, but most of the coverage also included comparisons with Williams’ fall from grace – with Stewart’s departure treated as the heavier blow to America. The story quickly became “satirical host leaves at the top of his game, while America’s most trusted newsman hits bottom.”

The whole concept of The Daily Show is that it’s a send up of the foibles of network television newscasts. But for many – especially in the coveted 18-34-age bracket – Stewart has become the most trusted man on television.

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 2.51.25 PM“The show is important is because it really does use humor and speak truth to power, so I don’t think keeping the format is as important as making sure you stay as this relevant response to what’s happening in the news and how the media is dealing with it,”Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show.

Some commentators take issue with the idea that what The Daily Show does is “speak truth to power” – Winstead’s idea of replacing Stewart with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow certainly supports the claims of those who see her goal as more about promoting a specific political agenda rather than producing a comedy show that skews all politicians equally. No one has ever mistaken Maddow for a non-partisan or even a balanced reporter.

Kyle Smith of The New York Post wrote that what Stewart really does is cover real news from a liberal political perspective and mask his bias with jokes. Smith decried Stewart’s influence with Millennials and his impact – negative, he argues – on American journalism.

The hacks have a special love for Stewart because he’s their id. They don’t just think he’s funny, they thrill to his every sarcastic quip. They wish they could get away with being so one-sided, snarky and dismissive. They wish they could skip over all the boring phone calls and the due diligence and the pretend fairness and just blurt out to their ideological enemies in Stewart style, “What the f–k is wrong with you?”

The New York Times’ media columnist David Carr wrote about the similarities between Stewart and Williams in one of his last columns before his death last week.

So, everyone is in on the joke. It’s all knowing winks and fake attacks on confected news read by people who are somewhat bored by what they do. It just seems less funny now. – NYT columnist David Carr.

How did a comedy show with a clearly liberal viewpoint become so widely influential? Perhaps it says more about the infotainment tendencies of real news shows than the political leanings of the American viewers. Or it could be that a good deal of the American public is simply tired of the veneer of non-partisanship that the majority of newscasts pretend to maintain and prefer to have their own viewpoint reflected in their news program – a model openly embraced at FOX News and MSNBC.

Still, context is important. More than 1 million Americans watched The Daily Show on average in January, according to Nielsen Media Research. Viewership for NBC Nightly News was nearly 10 million in the same week. (Of course, the Discovery Channel’s Alaskan Bush People racked up 3.8 million viewers – read into that what you will.)

Bloomberg editor Zara Kessler published a piece on Friday suggesting that The Daily Show’s audience – while smaller – may be better informed and more influential than the general public.

“I don’t watch a lot of TV news. I don’t watch cable at all. I like The Daily Show, so sometimes if I’m home late at night, I’ll catch snippets of that. I think Jon Stewart’s brilliant. It’s amazing to me the degree to which he’s able to cut through a bunch of the nonsense — for young people in particular, where I think he ends up having more credibility than a lot of more conventional news programs do.”– President Barack Obama, Rolling Stone 2012.

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Robert Dillon
Robert Dillon is former communications director of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He’s worked as a photographer and reporter for newspapers, magazines, and radio in Alaska, Washington, D.C., Russia, China, and across Europe.

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