30 Aug 2015

Is The Daily Show's 'fake news' legitimate journalism?

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 30 August 2015

Colin Peacock - mediawatch@radionz.co.nz@MediawatchNZ

Satirical 'fake news' TV shows have made a mark on politics and culture in the United States, and around the world imitators are using them as a template. Are they just a bit of fun for fans of the genre? Or are they now a viable form of political journalism?

Mediawatch asks a local expert who's looked into the subject, and who also knows what it's like to suffer a backlash for criticising big names in politics.

When Jon Stewart - the long-time host of The Daily Show - announced he was leaving the programme last month, it prompted an outpouring in the media. After 17 years as its host, critics hailed him for “pushing satire forward” and other tributes pointed to the programme's awards won for journalism even though its makers always described it as a “fake news” comedy.

three-part Daily Show series on gun control in the US was hailed as more than mere mockery of the gun lobby, but an attempt to find a solution.

The Daily Show has a much smaller US audience than the programmes and broadcasters it sends up, but its supporters say it has had a genuine impact in the media. In 2004, for example, Stewart used his appearance on CNN's polemical politics programme Crossfire to criticise the show itself:

JON STEWART: I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad.

PAUL BEGALA: We have noticed.

JON STEWART: And I wanted to -- I felt that that wasn't fair and I should come here and tell you that I don't -- it's not so much that it's bad, as it's hurting America.

Soon after, CNN announced that Crossfire would be scrapped. CNN president at the time, Jonathan Klein, told the New York Times he "heartily agreed" with Stewart's premise that ranting political shows were "hurting America".

Even though he's currently off-screen, more than 200,000 Americans have called for Stewart to moderate one of the TV debates between candidates for the US presidency in 2016.

The Daily Show without Jon Stewart

In the UK, one critic recently wailed that nothing else is “a hundredth as good” as Stewart’s Daily Show, though that's not what they were saying  when he first appeared on British TV.

The Daily Show will surely not collapse without Stewart. Much of its power comes from the quality of its writers, and the way they trawled the archives for telling pieces of devastating video to include in reports. New host Trevor Noah will benefit from that too; as The Daily Show says in its own adverts: “Same chair, different ass."

Even if Noah fails to fire, comedians who cut their teeth on the show alongside Stewart are carrying the torch. Former sidekick Stephen Colbert has taken over David Letterman’s The Late Show, watched by millions of Americans each week night. On HBO once a week, another former sidekick, Jon Oliver, is producing hilarious Daily Show-style takedowns of media hypocrisy and misreporting on topical subjects in the US on Last Week Tonight.

The local legacy 

The Daily Show, and Stewart’s style, have made a mark in New Zealand too. Maori TV’s topical satire show Brown Eye clearly has used both as a template.

Wellington-based Robbie Nicol - aka White Man Behind a Desk is having a stab at being the local, online, version of Stewart, sending up the local media as well as politics.

Someone who knows what it’s like to criticise the media and politicians, and suffer a backlash for it, is political scientist Dr Joe Atkinson.

In 1995, David Lange tried to sue him for a column in North and South magazine (pdf) which alleged he had been, in some respects, a lazy politician. After the case went through a series of courts, the Court of Appeal eventually decided journalists had a defence of qualified privilege, meaning that they could criticise politicians on the basis of their 'honest belief'.

When The Daily Show and other satirical 'fake news' shows started to cut through, Dr Atkinson began to wonder whether they were a genuine substitute for the conventional television news they mocked, or even a viable new form of political journalism.

In a lecture on this in 2010 Dr Atkinson said the influence and achievements of Stewart and The Daily Show were overstated. 

He doesn’t break original news stories. He works brilliantly with the advantages of hindsight provided by others. He didn’t foresee the financial meltdown, for instance. He ferreted out the news clips that failed to predict it after it had happened. There are indeed some real and useful elements of critique here, but they are generally not hard targets he’s aiming at.

Back then, Dr Atkinson reckoned the drama The West Wing was actually a more constructive commentary on modern US politics. Five years on, he told Mediawatch former Daily Show reporter John Oliver is the one to watch after Stewart’s departure.

In order to remain popular and be funny, Jon Stewart had to keep with a concensus among his audience. Jon Oliver has hired journalists not comics to write for him. If he’s going to do something like gun control, he spends a whole programme on it. He gives you figures to show the people defending gun law are bullshitting. He’s much more political than Jon Stewart. He isn’t an insider populist, he’s an outsider.

 - Dr Joe Atkinson

Meanwhile, Noah is filling big shoes when The Daily Show resumes in September.

“It will be interesting to see how long he survives. I don’t think it will be as long as Jon Stewart,” says Dr Atkinson.