September 27, 2014

When Comedy Meets Muckraking: “Fake” News Gets Investigative

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You’ve probably seen the spoof broadcasts of The Daily Show and similar “fake” TV news programs: the realistic sets, the bogus “live” shots from overseas hot spots, the absurd interviews. While steeped in wisecracks and satire, the shows have a hard political edge and often stir controversy. Increasingly, in the absence of serious news from the “real” news media, they also are getting into actual journalism, prompting one scholar to call the phenomenon “investigative comedy.”

The popularity of fake American TV news shows dates back to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update in the 1970s, when dubious anchors used comedy to lampoon public figures and joke about current events. The sketches reached their modern form with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who turned a backwater Comedy Central cable program into a political blockbuster starting in 1999. The Daily Show (whose motto is “The Best F#@king News Team Ever”) has, in turn, spun off two popular shows: The Colbert Report with Steven Colbert and, most recently, the HBO network’s Last Week Tonight, hosted by British comedian John Oliver. Both Colbert and Oliver are Daily Show alum.


El Intermedio (Intermisson) in Spain: “You’ve just heard the news, now we’ll tell you the truth.”

The trend is certainly not limited to the United States. Earlier this year, the military regime in Egypt forced off the air Bassem Youssef, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart,” whose show poked fun at top officials and had become among the most watched on national TV. In Spain, reports ICIJ’s Mar Cabra, El Intermedio (Intermission) is a Daily Show-like comedic news program that begins its broadcast with “You’ve just heard the news, now we’ll tell you the truth.” Also in Spain, another more traditional TV news magazine, Salvados (Saved), is hosted by comedian Jordi Évole.

For too many young Americans, the fake news shows seem to be the only source of news they get. Yet the programs are skillfully produced, and it’s sometimes hard to tell when the satire ends and reality begins. The Daily Show’s research — nailing public figures right and left for hypocrisy and falsehoods — is often impressive. Stephen Colbert’s staff even set up its own fund for unregulated U.S. political contributions, showing what a sham the current system is and prompting one study to call their work “an extended civics lesson.”

Now John Oliver has taken the genre an even further step forward — actually letting his staff dig into claims by the Miss America Pageant that it doles out US$45 million a year in scholarship money for women. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the show’s senior news researcher is Liz Day, former head of research for muckraking nonprofit ProPublica.) Watch what happens when Last Week Tonight follows the paper trail, and comedy meets journalism. How did we get to the point where a comedy show does better reporting than our “real” daily news shows?

Could this be the future of muckraking?


Where it began — with Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update in the 1970s.


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