Arts, Featured Column, Television

How Jon Stewart And ‘Fake News’ Challenged The Media Industry

We have to start asking whether absorbing fake news into the mainstream is a cure for our ills or a symptom of the problem.

Last Wednesday, the newest version of CNN’s polarizing debate show Crossfire was quietly euthanized with an official cancellation announcement. It is hard to imagine that the announcement inspired much mourning. Crossfire, which pits conservative and liberal pundits side by side to state their opinions as loudly and angrily as possible, has long been derided as a symbol of CNN’s decline from “the most trusted name in news” to a ratings-hungry monster. With Crossfire gone, the network will surely devote even more airtime to chasing lost Malaysian airplanes, stirring up panic about the Ebola crisis, and beaming holograms into its newsroom.

Fittingly enough, the cancellation came 10 years to the day after Jon Stewart’s famous 2004 appearance on the show, when he was invited to promote his book and instead spent his time insulting his hosts and everything for which their show stood. In his typical blend of snark and sincerity, he accused Crossfire of dividing the nation and shirking its journalistic responsibilities, exploiting the most extreme political positions at the expense of the moderate majority. You can find Stewart’s appearance on YouTube, and it’s still a marvel to behold, as he gradually turns Crossfire’s audience against the show itself, while its partisan hosts squirm, laugh nervously, and defensively cut him off, entirely ignoring the substance of his argument.

Ten years later, it would appear that Stewart has had the last laugh. And he’s not alone—a virtual cottage industry of “fake news” has taken hold over our culture, as the careers of Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and the folks at The Onion and Clickhole can attest. There’s a reason this stuff is so popular, of course. To watch John Oliver’s investigation into civil forfeiture laws or Stewart’s piece on the Washington Redskins name controversy is to realize that no mainstream news program would tackle these topics in so much detail. Take out the jokes and swearing, and fake news starts to look rather real, featuring more sustained investigative reporting than so-called “serious” news outlets—especially the likes of CNN and Fox, which long ago became self-parodies.

For all that, though, there is a real danger in holding comedians as standards of journalistic integrity. Stewart himself has always made that distinction, insisting that what he does is comedy and should not be mistaken for a substantive news show. Yet he wants to have his cake and eat it, too, serving up insightful political reporting but always ready to deflect criticism with the “Hey, it’s just comedy” excuse. His viewers don’t seem to care about that distinction, either. Look on any college student’s Facebook newsfeed, and you will immediately see how clips from The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight are reposted not so much for comedic value as to express the user’s political beliefs about Ferguson, or Ukraine, or ISIS.

But what does this reliance on fake news say about the health of our news media? Nothing very reassuring, I think. It speaks to our general skepticism toward the trustworthiness of modern news: it suggests that we are better off mocking our institutional failures than doing something to change them.

Increasingly, though, the major networks and news outlets are embracing the talent that has spent so much time tearing them down. This week it was reported that Stewart was heavily courted by NBC to become the new host of Meet the Press—a remarkable vote of confidence in a comedian to headline America’s longest-running talk show. Next year, Colbert will be heading to CBS to take over Late Show from David Letterman—not a news gig, per se, but it’s hard to imagine that Colbert’s political leanings and satirical bent will be completely absent. The New Yorker has absorbed Andy Borowitz’s satirical blog in a way that frequently deceives casual visitors, who take his stories for the real thing. We are not yet at a point where The Associated Press will recruit its news staff from The Onion, but the line between news and entertainment has never been so blurred.

At a certain point, though, we have to start asking whether absorbing fake news into the mainstream is a cure for our ills or a symptom of the problem. Comedians have their place, of course, and hosts like Stewart and Oliver have a unique talent at channeling moral outrage into brilliant comedy.

But that doesn’t make them journalists. And at the end of the day, we should all be grateful that Jon Stewart will not be hosting Meet the Press, because the more we embrace fake news, the more we give up on real news—and that is no laughing matter.

Featured Image Courtesy of Comedy Central

October 19, 2014