A good friend of mine is an enthusiastic fan of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert -- while cynical about TV news coverage. We had discussions about this in the past, where he insists that the fake news shows that the two comics have are pretty much the only real news coverage on television.
While I understand his perception, I don't even remotely believe the point, any more than Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do, both always very upfront about what it is they do. And so, my friend and I have our fun disagreement.
A news story cropped up this week which brought forth another email on the subject from my friend. He reminded me how a year ago he'd written me about how serious he was that Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart were the closest thing on network and major TV that does actual news reporting. How they cover stories that are otherwise ignored and do it better. I disagreed significantly at the time, so when the Huffington Post reported on that story which was making its way across the Internet, he sent it along --
"Want to be more informed about what's going on in the world? The findings of a new study suggest that watching Stephen Colbert might help you more than actual news programs.
What I wrote back was the following --
Thanks for this. And yes, I remember our conversation.
And yes, I stand by my own comments then, and this study doesn’t contradict that at all. I went to the Annenberg website and checked out the study. It doesn’t have anything to do with reporting the news. It has to do with explaining what campaign finance laws are. Those are two vastly different things.
From the Annenberg Public Policy website about their study -- “Watching ‘The Colbert Report’ served as ‘an extended civics lesson,’ the researchers said.” In other words, Colbert gave college lectures on what campaign financing is. What he didn’t do is break any news stories where his audience learned about what was happening.
(As for that other study showing that Jon Stewart’s viewers are more informed that those watching other news shows, that might be because people who are more informed to begin with choose to watch The Daily Show.)
Of course I think that Stewart and Colbert occasionally or even often report stories more insightfully than other news outlets. But to suggest that they cover stories ignored by the networks -- the networks are where they get their stories to satirize! They do almost zero actually news reporting. They gather news from news outlets and present it in a way, often connecting the dots very well, that’s more clear than news networks That’s great and important. But it’s not news reporting. It’s analysis and commentary.
The thing is, I know my friend is not alone is having this perception about how the fake news comedy shows are the only real outlet for news these days. And I completely understand why. They do a great job of shining a huge light on stories in a wildly entertaining and smart way, going into depth and emphasizing connections that TV news often does let fall through the cracks.
But understanding and agreeing are two different fish. Honestly, I knew about what campaign financing issues were, because I watch TV news, and also read news. And I know I'm not remotely alone. As widely entertaining and informative as are Stephen Colbert's "civics lessons," he's not only not the only broadcaster doing this, I would suggest he's not the most in-depth. Dr. Rachel Maddow, America's TV historian, tends to open her shows on MSNBC with monumental lessons on the past. Just two nights ago, for instance, she spent nine minutes going into the environmental protection laws of the last 44 years, and ended up devoting a full 26 minutes to the subject. (Her first guest, William K. Reilly, the former EPA Director under George H.W. Bush, thanked her with the first words out of his mouth, for the fine history lesson.) I dare say her viewers were quite well-informed on the subject the morning after. As they are about her other many causes, like the death penalty, oil spills, abortion clinics and bridge closings in New Jersey, to name just a few.
What is more likely true is that fewer people today watch network news than in decade past -- and ratings bear this out. So, there is a segment of the population more apt to watch TV who is not watching real news, but mainly watching comedy fake news, and that's what is more-informing them. It's not that the news isn't being reported, but that it's being watched less. Thank goodness, therefore, that at least Stewart and Colbert do such a good, intelligent and informative (and responsible) job at bringing real news in the world of the fake.
Add to this the reality that there is such a vast audience over the past decade watching "Fox News" and thinking that they are getting real news from them, but it's more fake than Comedy Central's fake news. By comparison, Stewart and Colbert actually seem like this generations Huntley and Brinkley. But drawing a conclusion that real news coverage doesn't exist because there is a "Fox News" is like saying that fine art has disappeared in today's society by pointing to the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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