Saturday, December 26, 2009

#7 - Fake News

It was the decade when...

The real news seemed fake and the fake news seemed real.

Let's face it, a lot of shit went down this decade. Compared to the temperate seas of the 90's, a decade so devoid of dramatic news that years were spent obsessing over a presidential hummer, the aughts were a roiling tempest of global turbulence, financial meltdowns, ecological disasters, foreign wars and game-changing historical events which, when seen in totality, mark this as the most significant decade for news since the 1960's and maybe earlier.

The news itself was news this decade. With the method of information dissemination being reinvented daily by the Internet, traditional news sources found themselves scrambling to keep up and stay profitable. On television, all three of the long-standing grandfatherly network news anchors either retired or expired, and with their passing so too the primacy of "the Nightly News" as the central authoritative televised presentation of the days events. Even Walter Cronkite finally gave up the ghost. No television program would ever be able to fill the role that the "Nightly News" used to play, not in the fragmented and blog-filled world that we suddenly found ourselves living in. That being said, there was one news program in the aughts that reported the news thoroughly and accurately while at the same ladling the comic absurdity of the modern world over every story it reported. I am of course talking about The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, without question the decades most important news program.

Ushering in a golden age of satire The Daily Show with Jon Stewart reasserted irony as the primary weapon of truth-telling in civil society. The show was the news media's sarcastic conscience in an era of unabashedly biased cable networks, barking media "pundits," political "spin-rooms", and shrinking financial resources for bread and butter field reporting. The aughts were an era where sycophantic "reporters" with dubious credentials infiltrated the White House press corps, lobbing softball questions to GW in times of great national crisis. An era when the 24 hours news cycle amplified every political skirmish into a hysterical crisis only to be discarded and forgotten by the next day. An era in which the talk show host with the most stringent views or most outrageous performance skills garnered the highest ratings, truth and thoughtfulness be damned. It was in this context that The Daily Show, though far from unbiased, acquired a carapace of authority and integrity shared by no other television program. To those who counted on a fair analysis of the news The Daily Show became a nightly ritual for many Americans, replacing both late night talk and traditional evening news. Host Jon Stewart went from being a successful stand-up comic and sporadically employed film actor to the most trusted man in America. Eminently astute and endlessly hilarious, Stewart combined old-fashioned borscht belt humor and the hyper-intellectual comedy of Ivy League publications like the Harvard Lampoon, with a dose of Tim Russert's inquisitional rigor thrown in for good measure. Unlike the self-congratulatory echo-chambers of 24-hour news networks, The Daily Show actively courted intelligent debate of a kind not seen on television since William F. Buckley gave us his parting switchblade smirk on Firing Line.

The shows most important function was its role as a media watchdog, ruthlessly exposing the lunacy and hypocrisy of the "legitimate" cable news channels, which, in the show's meta-analysis of the field, come across as inane and opportunistic loci of blathering idiots and any-for-a-rating gambits. How else to explain Glenn Beck or CNN's Star Wars hologram? By dismantling the edifice of legitimacy that the "real news" claimed a monopoly on, the void left behind was to be filled by a different kind of program, one with no obligation to seriousness but which nonetheless was executed with the utmost of integrity. The Daily Show's ridicule of mainstream news paved the way for its own meteoric rise to success. When Jon Stewart appeared on CNN's long runing debate program Crossfire the comic all but torpedoed his hosts, turning his appearance into nothing less than a full-blown confrontation, accusing his hosts of "hurting America." The show was canceled a few months later, all but coronating Stewart as America's voice of reason.

The Daily Show grew so popular it became a miniature star factor with many of the series' correspondents moving on to widespread Hollywood success. Steve Carrell joined Judd Apatow's cadre, transforming himself into a major film star. He then conquered the small screen yet again as the read role in TV's hit sitcom The Office. Ed Helm's eventually joined Carrell on The Office and later landed big screen success in 2009's biggest comedy smash, The Hangover. Rob Courdroy too has cultivated a modest film career after his tenure on The Daily Show.

But it was former correspondent Stephen Colbert who turned his faux-newsman persona into a one-man cult of personality on The Daily Show's remarkable spin-off The Colbert Report. A lampoon of blowhard talk show hosts of a sort popular on Fox News, The Colbert Report is even purer satire than its source. Never breaking from his assumed egomaniacal pomposity and party-line conservatism, Stephen Colbert (the character, not the actor of the same name) is a textbook lesson in satirical construction. From the beginning Colbert had his finger on the pulse of America. Introducing the word "truthiness" into the American lexicon during his first episode, the word could arguably be the most vital addition to the American vocabulary in years. When Colbert was plucked to bring his act to the Annual Press Correspondent's Dinner in 2006 his set left the room in a dazed silence, the routine being a sustained and penetrating critique of the Bush Administration's policies and the press' coverage thereof. After bombing in person, when the footage hit the internet Colbert's speech immediately turned into a sensation, eventually running a victory lap as the most watched video on iTunes. It still remains one of the most overtly confrontational and politically brave moments by a member of the press during the Bush administration.

With The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (as well as their cousin in print, the sublimely hilarious weekly news periodical The Onion) satire and humor acted as the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of go down. As real news veered ever closer to the precipice of absurdity, more and more did the silly and comic approximate the actual texture of reality, even when the truth was anything but funny. With an administration and congress more closely aligned with the ideological perspective of the Daily Show's creative team now in power, it remains to be seen if the show will be able to maintain its critical satiric edge. But whatever happens, without the fake news of the past ten years the real news would have simply been unbearable.

You AUGHT to remember...

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