The Week That Wasn't


Image Bank/Getty Images (family); Takeshi Kanazaki/Photonica (TV); Norman Jean Roy/Comedy Centeral (Stewart)
YOU'RE NO WALTER CRONKITE Some still choose wholesome network news, but for many others, Comedy Central hits closer to home, and even CNN is taking notice.
By WARREN ST. JOHN
October 3, 2004

MIDWAY through live analysis of the presidential debate on "The Daily Show" on Thursday night, the host, Jon Stewart, called on his "correspondents" in the field for some in-depth analysis.

"Ed, how are the Kerry people feeling?"

"Ecstatic, Jon," came the response. "Kerry's people couldn't be happier. Their candidate went up against a sitting war president who's never lost a debate and held his own."

"O.K.," Mr. Stewart said. "And Rob, what's the mood at the Bush camp?"

"Triumph, Jon," the correspondent said. "Orgasmic triumph. Their man faced off against John Kerry, a golden-tongued virtuoso of words and captain of the Yale debate team. He's been honing his oratorical skills since the age of 3, and the way they see it, by not allowing himself to be reduced to tears, the president was the big winner tonight."

The exchange which ended with the Bush campaign "correspondent" pleading "You gotta re-elect him!" was a clever evisceration both of the shallowness of campaign spin and of the news media's capacity for buying that spin, and ran on Comedy Central the same evening when the campaign spin doctors were earnestly toiling away on other networks. Just to make sure there was no misunderstanding, during a commercial break, Mr. Stewart offered a reminder to the guffawing audience in his studio on West 54th Street. "Remember," he said gravely. "We are not actual newspeople."

Fake news is certainly the comic trope of the moment. Besides "The Daily Show," Ali G uses the news talk show format to absurd ends, mocking politicians, celebrities and panels of self-proclaimed experts. The humorist Andy Borowitz files daily stories in perfect news-service deadpan on his Web site, www.BorowitzReport.com. The phony newspaper The Onion is expanding its print operation to new cities.

And in a strange turnabout, mainstream news outlets have been clamoring to introduce news satire to their programming, never mind that mainstream news is often what is being mocked. The ABC news magazine "Prime Time Live" recently began closing the program with a two-minute musical rendition of satirical headlines. Mo Rocca, formerly of "The Daily Show," played the role of wisecracking on-air correspondent for "Larry King Live" during the political conventions. And Mr. Borowitz is a regular on CNN and appears alongside straight-faced legal experts on Court TV.

"Today I spent an hour on Court TV talking about the Peterson case, and I don't know anything about the Peterson case," Mr. Borowitz said on Wednesday. "It's perfectly appropriate on mainstream news shows now to have a satirist in the mix."

Satirists, perhaps not surprisingly, are loath to talk earnestly about what they do; Mr. Stewart is particularly averse to speaking seriously about humor. But when pressed, most say their opening has come because of a polarized electorate that suspects the media of doing the other side's bidding, coupled with high-profile journalistic scandals.

Let down, perhaps, by the mainstream media, 21 percent of people under 30 say they are learning about the campaign from satirical sources like "The Daily Show" and the late-night television monologues, up from 9 percent in 2000, according to a Pew Research Center study released in January. Comedy Central mocked CNN's motto "The most trusted name in news" and Walter Cronkite's onetime reputation (as America's most trusted man) on a billboard during the Republican National Convention, which proclaimed "The Daily Show" as "the most trusted name in fake news."

"This is big because there is this gigantic imbalance and something has got to fill it," said the cultural critic Neal Gabler, who is obsessed with "The Daily Show." "Young people get the attitude, the deflationary truth-telling attitude of these shows because they can't find it elsewhere," he said.

Mr. Rocca agreed. "The premise of any joke delivered by oddball newscasters is that they're making fun of the media's treatment of news as much as they are the subjects of the news," he said. "And if there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that, right or wrong, they hate the press."

Once they have the audience's sympathies, fake news purveyors have a simple task: be funny.

"A well-told joke that has a Republican target, if it's clever enough, gets Republicans to laugh too," Mr. Rocca said.

News satire of course is a time-tested gag. Mark Twain wrote fake news stories, and they were a staple of The National Lampoon in the 1970's. The television era has produced a steady supply of news spoofs like "Not Necessarily the News," "That Was the Week That Was" and "Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live." But even the satirists themselves confess to being surprised by the sudden market for their craft.

"When I got out of school everyone wanted to write for sitcoms," Mr. Borowitz said. "The idea that you could have a career as a prose satirist. It's hard to imagine that even five years ago." The latest evidence of the shift: "America (The Book)" by Mr. Stewart and "Daily Show" colleagues, a spoof of a civics textbook, will appear as No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list of Oct. 10.

Of course no self-respecting satirist would take credit for anything so profound as affecting the political discourse, or even to having a political point of view. Asked about the politics of writers for "The Daily Show," Ben Karlin, the executive producer, insisted, "We have no agenda other than holding on to our cushy, high-paying, basic cable jobs."

As for the Pew study crediting shows like his for teaching a fifth of young Americans about politics, Mr. Karlin said he was dubious. For one thing, he said, the audience could not possibly get the jokes if it did not already know the news stories that were being spoofed. "People are getting their news from the tops of taxi cabs, from sluglines on Yahoo and from accidentally stopping on CNN," he said.

The hyped-up news cycle has been a boon to the fake news racket. For one thing, there is a steady flow of new material. And for another, a more informed public means a bigger potential audience. When Cat Stevens was barred from entering the country late last month after showing up on a terrorist watch list, Mr. Borowitz said he sat down to write a fake news story about it. "You don't have to start by saying to the audience, `See, there was this singer-songwriter from the 70's named Cat Stevens,' " he said. "In comedy parlance that was called the set-up. Now you can go straight to the punch line." (Mr. Borowitz came up with "Angry Cat Stevens Vows to Resume Singing: Broadcasts Threat on Al Jazeera.")

On its most basic level, news satire derives its humor from the juxtaposition of earnest newspeak and the absurd. "Nothing is more serious and pompous than a network news anchor or the earnest prose style of a newspaper," Mr. Borowitz said. "The parody of the style becomes a joke in and of itself."

The form of news satire on "The Daily Show" is more sophisticated, mocking not just the style of the news but the conventions of journalism; for example, the mainstream news media's fixation with fairness.

"There's some weird handcuffs on the mainstream news so that they feel that no matter what, they have to present both sides of the argument, even if one side of an argument is wrong," Mr. Karlin said. "The idea that we give the guilty an equal opportunity to defend themselves we have no idea why."

On one fake newscast, Mr. Stewart asked a correspondent in the field for his opinion on the Swift Boat veterans claims against Senator John Kerry. "My opinion?" the reporter responded. "I don't have opinions. I'm a reporter, Jon. My job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called objectivity; might want to look it up."

Although he is coy about his politics, Mr. Stewart seems to relish mocking conservatives more than liberals, and at his studio on Thursday night, the crowd of people in their 20's, divided almost evenly between men and women, made no secret of their distaste for President Bush while watching the debate on monitors before the show began.

On Friday, Michael Hoyt, the executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, said that in some ways Mr. Stewart was providing a counterbalance to the conservatism of the Fox News Channel.

"People are hungry for some sort of attitude and guidance through an ocean of spin," he said. "Fox supplies it in one way, and Jon Stewart in another. Both are reactions to distorted objectivity, what I call a phony objectivity. They are pieces of the same puzzle."

Mr. Gabler said, "It's a form of humor that subverts media convention and reveals the pomposities and idiocies of politicians, but even more the pomposities and idiocies of the media that covers the politicians."

All of which begs the question: What are programs like "Larry King Live" and "Prime Time Live" hoping to accomplish by bringing news satirists on board? Mr. Rocca's antics on "Larry King Live" during the conventions this summer, while occasionally funny, only highlighted the staid nature of the broadcast, and for his part, Mr. King seemed not to know how to react, other than to laugh a bit too zealously at Mr. Rocca's wisecracks.

Shelley Ross, the producer of "Prime Time Live" who came up with the idea to do the musical news satire gag on her program, inspired by "That was the Week That Was" in the 1960's, said she felt satire was a proper response to searching times. "It represents a healthy society," she said.

For his part Mr. Rocca said he considered his satirical bits a kind of public service. "Television newscasts are so calcified and rigid, any departure from that is exhilarating," he said. "And five minutes of good satire is a lot more useful than an hour on J.Lo's baby shower."


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