Monday, November 12, 2007

Business Times - 09 Nov 2007

When fake news and comedy trump reality


DISCUSS political events with a 20-something American these days and you would probably be surprised to learn that he or she gets much of his or her news on politics, including the presidential race, from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, the two popular shows on Comedy Central cable television network.

This is where comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, using formats typical of mainstream journalism ('And now we turn to our senior child molestation correspondent . . .') play talk show hosts who anchor mock newscasts and report fake news.

'A lot of television viewers - more, quite frankly, than I'm comfortable with - get their news from the Comedy Channel on a programme called The Daily Show,' prominent - and real - news reporter and anchor Ted Koppel told The Washington Post two years ago.

Indeed, some observers have even compared the trust and influence which Stewart enjoys today to that of CBS anchor Walter Cronkite in the 1970s. And ironically, a 2004 Annenberg survey found that The Daily Show viewers were better informed than those who relied solely on conventional network news, that is, real news.

All of which explains why the line between real and fake news has been blurred in recent years. In fact, prominent newsmakers, including presidential candidates and even foreign leaders like Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf have appeared on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

At the same time, critics have charged that a lot of the political news on network and cable television reflects the fake construction of political reality - aka 'spins' that are promoted by the PR advisers to public figures.

Hence, one could recall the staging of President George W Bush's choreographed post-Iraq-War 'Mission Accomplished' spectacle on the USS Abraham Lincoln, and more recently, a staged television news conference by the government's Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) on the California wildfires. (Fema's Ted Philbin who staged the event lost his promotion; President Bush was re-elected.)

And in another example of fake news masquerading as real news - or is it the other way around? - Colbert announced that he had decided to run for the presidency.

Appearing on the prestigious - and very real - Sunday news show Meet the Press, Colbert told real news show host Tim Russet: 'I'm doing it, Tim, because I think that our country is facing unprecedented challenges in the future,' adding: 'I think the junctures that we face are both critical and unforeseen, and the real challenge is how we will respond to these junctures, be they critical, or God help us, unforeseen.'

Unfortunately, it's over for Colbert, after the decision by South Carolina Democrats last week to deny him a spot on the presidential primary ballot. 'I am shocked and saddened by the South Carolina Democratic Executive Council's 13-to-3 vote to keep me off their presidential primary ballot,' he said in a statement. 'Although I lost by the slimmest margin in presidential election history - only 10 votes - I have chosen not to put the country through another agonising Supreme Court battle. It is time for this nation to heal.'

Interestingly enough, according to real news reports, the main opposition to Colbert's candidacy among the South Carolina's Democrats came from supporters of real Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama who were worried that - really! - Colbert could draw votes from their candidate during that state's Democratic presidential primaries early next year.

Which leads us straight to Mr Obama and fake news. The very telegenic African-American senator from Illinois who is trying to overcome the huge lead that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York and the former First Lady enjoys in the Democratic presidential race, appeared last Saturday on the opening sketch of another comic television show that specialises in fake news, NBC's Saturday Night Live (SNL), where he joined impersonators Amy Poehler and Darrell Hammond who were portraying the former First Couple.

The sketch featured the Clintons hosting a Halloween party, with a series of fake Democratic candidates showing up in costume. Near the end, a man walked in wearing an Obama mask. He then removed the mask to reveal that he was, indeed, the real Obama.

'Well, you know, Hillary, I have nothing to hide. I enjoy being myself,' Mr Obama said. 'I'm not going to change who I am just because it is Halloween.'

'Well, that's great,' 'Hillary Clinton' answered. 'And may I say, you make a lovely bride,' Mr Obama told her. 'She's a witch,' 'Bill Clinton' replied.

Mr Obama wrapped up his brief appearance with the show's signature starting line: 'Live from New York, it's Saturday Night.'

In a way, this entertainment-imitating-life performance reflects Mr Obama's real political strategy of trying to portray Mrs Clinton as a phony, as someone who is trying to market herself as a political figure with 'experience' as opposed to the 'inexperienced' Mr Obama.

When he removed his mask on the fake Halloween party on SNL, Mr Obama was hoping to convince the television audience that he was 'real', as opposed to the scripted and 'fake' Mrs Clinton.

But Mr Obama will have to wait till the outcome of the very real Democratic presidential primaries next year to discover whether his strategy is working.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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