Over the weekend, my wife and I watched Anchorman II, astoundingly silly Will Ferrell turn as a newsman. Also this morning, as is my wont, I watched last night’s The Daily Show, getting my Jon Stewart fix, and followed it with my Stephen Colbert fix. Also watched some Rachel Maddow, and caught a little news, some on Fox and some on MSNBC. And then, finally got to Sunday’s John Oliver show.
John Oliver got his start on Jon Stewart, and filled in one summer when Jon was off making a movie. He was so good that HBO gave him his own show, Last Week Tonight. It’s amazing. Of all the fake news shows out there, from Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update (“Francisco Franco is still dead!”) to Bill Maher to Stewart and Colbert, Oliver’s show is, IMHO, the best. Oliver does still laugh at his own jokes, which can be annoying. But because he’s only on once a week, he’s able to dig deepest, focus on just a few issues, really take some risks.
Anyway, on his show last Sunday, he did this story, about the Miss America Pageant (warning: the clip has some bad language). It’s hard to imagine anything more ridiculous than the Miss America Pageant, or more anachronistic. As Oliver put it in his opening, “how the &$^$^(@ is this still happening?” It’s the year 2014. How does an event, in which a fully clothed male stands in front of a line of half-naked women, so they can be judged, still be a part of American culture?
Okay, it was a funny bit. But then Oliver dug deeper. First, he showed the ridiculous questions the contestants get asked, and then showed one young woman, in 20 seconds, give a thoughtful, intelligent, nuanced response to a question about ISIS. His point is clear: yeah, it’s a beauty contest, but these are some exceptionally sharp young women. It’s heartbreaking, in fact, to think that these bright and talented women have to parade about in swim suits to earn a college scholarship.
But of course, Miss America is a scholarship pageant. That’s what’s at stake. These women are competing in an organization that prides itself on being the biggest provider of scholarships specifically for women in the world. And they probably are. At least, Oliver and his staff researched the question, and couldn’t find anyone else providing more money.
And then they dug deeper. The pageant claims that it ‘makes available’ 45 million dollars annually. That’s a lot of money. Is it true? Oliver and his staff dug deeper. The Miss America pageant is a non-profit organization, required to file publicly accessible financial reports with the government. Oliver’s staff dug through those records, and found that the pageant actually gave out $482,000 in scholarship funds. So they pulled the tax forms from every state level competition in the country.
What they discovered was that the 45 million dollar claim is basically bogus, that Miss America reached that number by counting every scholarship any affiliated school might possibly offer. If a young woman is eligible for scholarships at one of four Pennsylvania schools, for example, Miss America counts the total value of all four school scholarships, though obviously Miss Pennsylvania is only going to attend one of them. That kind of thing. Miss America does not provide 45 million dollars in scholarship funds.
It was a very funny comedy routine. But it was also informative, well researched, and quite probably true. The Miss America pageant felt it necessary to respond. So did other scholarship programs for women. And nobody really disputed Oliver’s research. His story was funny, yes, but it was also truthful, accurate and disturbing.
So how was it not journalism?
And that’s the point. The line between fake journalism and real journalism, between the way comedians deconstruct the news and the often preposterous sideshow 24 hour news has become is, at the very least, very thin indeed. If it exists at all. I know people who get all their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They don’t necessarily strike me as ill-informed.
I wish more people read newspapers. But newspapers are dying. I look nostalgically back to the days when news was delivered by the Cronkites and Huntleys and Brinkleys of the world. But that time is long past. What we have is. . . well, what we have is this.
Anchorman 2 is an incredibly silly movie. The characters are buffoons and fools, selfish and self-centered. That’s why they’re so funny. (In fact, the one genuinely human moment of connection in the film is the relationship between Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig, who play a weatherman and a secretary, both of them dumb as bricks). But it’s also an incisive and intelligent satire on the news industry, on 24 hour news networks, who try to bring people “the news they want to hear, not the news they need to hear,” as Ron Burgundy puts it. This means overt calls to patriotism. Car chases. Soft-core titillation. Weather people buffeted about by hurricane winds (because how can you report a hurricane without putting some poor schmuck in the middle of one). A lot of the movie is pretty flabby, honestly, but in middle of it is some pretty sharp satire.
Jon Stewart has been accused by conservatives by having a liberal bias, which he freely admits is true. But his main target on the Daily Show is not in fact conservatism. It’s the same thing comedians have always made fun of: human stupidity and incompetence. Hubris and arrogance and people in power with their pants around their ankles. Fools behaving clownishly. Ron Burgundy is an idiot, of course, but his twenty-four news show is successful. There’s one sequence in the movie where Ron’s wife, a news anchor on a mainstream news show, is interviewing Yasser Arafat, a huge scoop for her (the show is set in the 80s). Ron, meanwhile, decides to follow a random car chase taking place in Milwaukee. His story gets much better ratings, of course. And it would. That’s why the scene is funny; that’s what would happen.
So if Jon Stewart is liberal, and Colbert plays a conservative idiot for laughs, and obviously John Oliver is liberal, and Bill Maher is so liberal he bleeds blue, why hasn’t there been a conservative fake news show? There actually was one on Fox for a short while–it totally bombed. It bombed for an exceptionally good reason: because it wasn’t funny.
The real answer, of course, is that conservatives don’t just have a successful fake news show, they have an entire fake news network. CNN is funny because they’re lame; they’re funny in the same way that earnest people taking silly things seriously is always funny. CNN is funny because CNN covers Justin Bieber the same way it covers ISIS.
Fox is funny in much the same way; that combination of earnestness and triviality is always going to be funny. But add ideology to the mix and the whole thing becomes hilarious. They’re not just earnest people taking trivial issues seriously, they’re also people who always, always have the Right Answer to any question, found in an unswerving allegiance to a specific set of ideas. The federal government: bad. Global warming: non-existent. Corporations: good. Barack Obama: Satan.
But look at they way they repackage classic comedic tropes. Take that Fox standby, the pompous, pontificating elderly authority figure. Polonius, in other words. The fathers in all of Moliere’s comedies. Pantalone in commedia dell’arte. Bill O’Reilly epitomizes the type. Remember, during the Ferguson stand-off, Bill O giving those condescending scoldings to black people? Offensive, sure. But also really really funny, as hubris always is (that is, when its not tragic). And Sean Hannity; isn’t he also a comic type? Eddie Haskell, maybe? Alex Keaton? Obsequious young suck-up?
I mean, why are all the Fox News reporters and co-anchors pretty blondes? I don’t mean to suggest that attractive blonde women can’t read the news, or that they’re universally bad at their jobs. But come on. Isn’t it at least a little funny that a news organization can’t find anyone else to hire? The Stepford Wives jokes aside, is it an accident that Fox’s demographics skew so severely old, white and male? A generation of men who grew up girl-watching? And that, simultaneously, all the news presenters are attractive young women?
I know the response from conservatives. MSNBC has a liberal bias worse than Fox’s conservative bias. Plus, so do CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN. PBS. Fox is a necessary corrective. I’ve heard all the arguments. My point, though, is that Fox is itself basically a fake news organization. They have the trappings of real news–the sets, the graphics, the anchors sitting at a desk, the field reporters–while actually sort of ducking the responsibilities and obligations of actual news reporting. And John Oliver did a real news story–dug for facts, asked tough questions, researched and reported. So what’s news? What counts anymore?