Sunday, October 15, 2006

The real message of fake news

Time was when national newscasts ended with opinion essays from the likes of Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith or John Chancellor, and local newscasts aired management's views on civic issues. So, why do news junkies looking for perspective now have to channel-surf from local news to Comedy Central and "The Daily Show"?

In early days of TV, commentary was an analog of the daily newspaper, with its back pages of columnists and editorials. But the government had a lot to do with it. Before cities had been wired for cable, the Federal Communications Commission saw broadcasters as "public trustees," and its Fairness Doctrine required them to address community concerns to keep their licenses.

Fair enough, except that here's how it worked in practice: I say something on the air you don't agree with. You demand equal air time for rebuttal. And since the FCC was keeping score, you got it. The process kept many stations from sticking their neck out.

The FCC dropped the Fairness Doctrine 20 years ago, reasoning that cable TV would expand the universe for political talk. But commentary itself was disappearing from newscasts. Vivid visuals from across the globe were the newscast's strong suit. Commentary was usually just another man in front of a microphone.

And cable TV did provide another platform for public-affairs chatter. It aired debates nightly, no candidates required. CNN called it "Crossfire," but some viewers saw it as a shouting match. At least it was dramatic.

At least commentary was finding a more comfortable home in late-night comedy. The fake newscast of "Saturday Night Live" had gone beyond jokes about "Soviet jewelry" to jokes about Dan Quayle &151; thought to be the dimmest bulb in the first Bush White House. Quayle, one joke went, thinks Roe v. Wade were alternative ways to cross the Potomac. HBO had a show called "Not Necessarily the News," and a new all-comedy channel on cable featured a mix of standup comedy and political talk led by actor and gadfly Bill Maher.

So "The Daily Show" and The Colbert Report" didn't happen overnight. We know that these shows are a big deal — that about 20 percent of young voters in the last election were watching "The Daily Show." And we know that because a decade ago pollsters were watching the young people who were watching Maher's "Politically Incorrect."

The "Daily Show" fans at the Billy Goat Tavern help explain the attraction. Reporters enjoy how the newscast form gets skewered, the way when Jon Stewart turns to the congressional page scandal, the label behind him reads, "Crisis in Our Nation's Pants."

But they also are understand topical satire. Newspaper reporters have had it in their blood for centuries. Newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin wrote under comic alter egos like Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue. Mark Twain began developing his deadpan approach to humor writing for a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. The Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey were creations of Thomas Nast, the 19th century political cartoonist.

Newspapers adopted satire because, as the proverb said, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Late-night comedians would agree.
So would the A political ad on CNN shows people in a park questioning a piece of shrubbery. "So what's our exit strategy from Iraq?" "Why did we let down Katrina victims?" "Why won’t Congress do anything?" The narrator then says, "OK, it's kind of ridiculous to think you're ever going to get an answer from this bush. But it's also kind of ridiculous to think you're going to get an answer (cue a picture of President Bush) from this one."

The ad ends with a call to vote for change. That's what all political humor does.
After seeing months of attack ads, I'm ready for the light approach. Sunday's Tribune finds the majority of voters unhappy with their choices. I think they're ready too.

Some of my peers find a worrisome message in fake news. It says the political process is a joke. But I get a positive message from topical humor. It says the state of affairs calls for strong medicine, and a spoonful of sugar to help it go down. That's the real message of fake news. On Nov. 7, we'll be ready for the punch line.