Monday, August 28, 2006

The news: Based on a true story

Like most philosophical discussions, it took place in a bar.

The Society of Professional Journalists met in Chicago this weekend, and a crowd from Maryland followed me to the Billy Goat Tavern. This bar below Michigan Avenue features a grill that's said to be a model for late comedian John Belushi's "cheezborger" diner sketch. But it's a journalists' bar, across from the Chicago Tribune, lined with photographs of gone or forgotten Chicago journalists.

We were talking about fake news.

Irony is the language of modern debate, even in a crowd of reporters. Maybe especially in a crowd of reporters. A "Celebration of Diversity" convention reception drew operagoing journalists (yes, the tribe includes even operagoers) to hear up-and-coming Filipino tenor Rodell Rosel. His choice of song? "La donna e mobile," Verdi's aria about the fickle nature of woman. For those of us with Lyric Opera season tickets, this confection had a bitter aftertaste.

As the evening wound down from wine at the recital to beers at the Goat, chat geared up from the opera to the Onion, a satirical weekly that delivers topical humor in deadpan wire-service style. Typical headline: Bush Urges Nation To Be Quiet For A Minute While He Tries To Think.

Political satire has a long and puckish history in newspapers, but the Onion has a special following among journalists for its sly use of newspaper conventions, from promotional teaser headlines to iconic graphics.

A recent journalism-school graduate in our group enjoyed the Onion's fanciful editorial page, where all publishing executives are named Zweibel. That's an in-joke, I explained: The Onion started in Madison, Wis., originally a German settlement where everyone seems to be named Zweibel (translation: onion). A newspaper editor in Madison is named Dave Zweifel (translation: doubt).

The Onion has spawned imitators such as the Heckler, a Chicago sports tabloid with a standing feature titled "Over/Under With Pete Rose." Oddly, both the Onion and the Heckler put their fake news alongside factual, if not irony-free, entertainment features.

Beltway editors in our group had not seen the Onion but knew plenty about "The Daily Show," the Onion's television twin. Jon Stewart's smart comedy has many fans among young reporters, and if polling is to be believed, among well-informed young adults in general. In the last election, "Daily Show" fans scored higher on campaign platforms than viewers of other late-night hosts.

"The Daily Show" has a veracity segment too, a newsmaker interview in which Stewart delivers more pointed questions than Leno or Letterman.

The young Onion fan saw the "Daily Show" as part of a generational divide: College students think Stewart's fake newscasts are on point, while older adults find the satire corrosive. The newly minted j-school grad was of two minds. She enjoys the comedy. She abhors the attitude.

Journalistic convention is a foil in the Onion and on "The Daily Show." It plays deadpan while stating the outrageous. However, my generation of Watergate-raised reporters never bought into the conceit of just-the-facts reporting. Instead we tried to walk a line, being analytical but not critical.

Now news seems married to polemics. Perhaps it's simply impossible these days to absorb news reports without drawing conclusions. Broadcast talk shows start from a conclusion. "Liberals hate us" is the billboard boast of Chicago radio station WIND. Air America Radio affiliate WCPT answers, "Liberals love us."

Centerists can only tune it out.

Advance word on ABC's docudrama "The Path to 9/11" suggests that its producers are trying not to let facts get in the way of a good story. The miniseries dramatizes behind-the-scenes planning in the war on terror, which would be understandable if none of the planners were around to tell the tale.

All of this seems like the swing of a very slow pendulum back to days of a press captive to its political sponsors, when newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin wrote under sly surnames like Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue.

Fact-finding is expensive, and drags down newspaper share prices. Satire is a visit to low-overhead country. Now, bloggers share the satirists' business model. Yet even as we write ironically, we know how cheaply it comes.

Satire is one of the few weapons the powerless can aim at slavers or dictators. But it has little force to change what it ridicules. The Berlin Wall was not mocked into oblivion. Yet increasingly satire is how we interpret politics. When George Stephanopoulos wants to take the country's temperature on ABC, he shows clips from "The Daily Show."

Sen. Joe Biden writes in his latest statement on Iraq: "Those who reject this plan out of hand must answer one simple question: What is your alternative?" It's Biden's pre-emptive strike at irony.

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