Monday, November 12, 2007

"It’s true because it’s funny"

Jonah Goldberg has a fantastic critique of the "fake news" industry i.e., The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. John Stewart and Stephen Colbert have blurred the line between news and entertainment, and between fact and fiction, so much so that Goldberg notes, "It’s no longer funny because it’s true. It’s true because it’s funny. "

Colbert and Stewart, throw in Bill Maher too, are essentially stand-up acts who found a niche in creating a comedy show wrapped in a pseudo-intellectual costume, dealing with real issues. However, the premise only works when it produces laughs. Most of the time the laughs are not always based on real facts, rather they are based on playing to the general left-wing tenor of their audience. I watch Bill Maher's Real Time on HBO, mostly for his "New Rules," which are hilarious. However, his conservative guests must feel like Koestler's Rubashov in Darkness at Noon, when the kool-aid drinking audience gets riled up at Maher's "fact-based" comedy. Same goes for Stewart and Colbert.

I leave you with this from Goldberg, although the whole column is worth a read:
The problem of parsing fact from fiction, news from entertainment, has been inherent to broadcast journalism from the beginning. Radio newsman Walter Winchell got his start in vaudeville. But in the modern era, I blame “Murphy Brown,” the show about a fictional TV newswoman who talked about real newsmakers as if they were characters on her sitcom. When Brown had a baby out of wedlock, Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the writers of the show. Liberals then reacted as though Quayle had insulted a real person — and so did the fictional Brown, whining about how she’d been personally attacked. Ever since, journalists and politicians have been playing themselves in movies and TV series, perhaps trying to disprove the cliche that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people.

TV news is, and always has been, the shallowest branch of journalism. This is why TV journalism in particular operates like a trade guild — not because it’s so hard to do but because it’s so easy. (The Brits call their anchors “news readers” for a reason.) For instance, in 2000, Sam Donaldson led a successful internal revolt over a plan to have Leonardo DiCaprio interview President Clinton for ABC News. The essence of the complaint was that viewers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between DiCaprio and a “real” TV reporter. Let’s face it, that’s true. Even DiCaprio can read questions off an index card or teleprompter.

“Yes, it’s a changed business,” Donaldson said at the time, “and we ought to recognize that. But we also all have to recognize that we have to do things according to the standards that will help us retain our credibility.”

I think Donaldson was right, but I also don’t mind that TV news is trying to be relevant to viewers not on the AARP’s mailing list. What I do find dismaying is that “relevance” is literally coming at the expense of reality.

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