Digging for the meaning of fake news' acceptance

Jon Stewart's program is one show viewers take seriously

October 12, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun Reporter

NEW YORK -- Hipsters on the streets of New York are wearing "Stewart/Colbert '08" T-shirts, promoting a Dream Team presidential ticket featuring the Comedy Central stars. And the subway is plastered with ads for Man of the Year, the new Barry Levinson film that imagines an American public so disgusted with politics that it elects a fake news anchor president.

Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, insists he's not running. But judging from the reverential reception he received at last weekend's New Yorker Festival, and the fact that tickets to his appearance sold out in about two minutes, there's a hunger for something truthful and authentic in American politics. Man of the Year suggests the place to find it is in fake news.

"I'm a jester. A jester doesn't rule the kingdom. He makes fun of the king," Robin Williams' character (Tom Dobbs) says in the film, which opens tomorrow. Still, he's persuaded to run for president against a Democrat and a Republican who are indistinguishable. Dobbs is the child exposing the emperors for what they are - scripted, risk-averse career pols who haven't given a straight answer in so long they no longer remember how.

"If it was unpatriotic to question the government, we'd still be English," Dobbs says during a presidential debate in the movie.

You'll never see Stewart in such a venue. He's a reluctant hero who doesn't want to shoulder the burden of educating a generation of "stoned slackers" - Bill O'Reilly's inexact term for Stewart's audience. He repeatedly insists that he is only a comedian and that his show is about making jokes.

"We don't have reporters. We have a guy with TiVo," he said at the New Yorker Festival on Sunday. "There's no way you can get real news from us. I know. I've seen the show."

Stewart is being too modest. He is watched by 3 million people not just because he's funny, though that's essential, but because he tells truths that aren't often found in other media. When the Bush administration trumpeted its Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, Stewart called it a Coalition of the Piddling and noted the entire contribution of one nation was bomb-sniffing monkeys.

This week Stewart juxtaposed Bush's statements on North Korea after that nation successfully tested a nuclear weapon ("The United States condemns this provocative act. The United States remains committed to diplomacy.") with his statements on Iraq three years ago, when it was only suspected of having weapons of mass destruction. ("Our demands are that Saddam Hussein disarm. If he doesn't disarm, we'll disarm him.")

The media has the ability to make such comparisons - it's a simple matter of going into the archives - but that rarely happened until Hurricane Katrina last year exposed the discrepancy between what the administration was saying and what was happening.

Before Katrina, "The front lines of the media, and in particular television news, which is still the way most Americans get the news, simply did not want to believe they were being lied to, and when [the lies] were blatant, they were lazy," said New York Times columnist Frank Rich in an interview with The Sun.

"A lot of the information that disputed the administration's version of events was out there - it was hiding in plain sight and sometimes Stewart would just call attention to it," said Rich, an unabashed admirer of Stewart and Stephen Colbert in his columns and author of the new book The Greatest Story Ever Sold.

A last resort

Stewart believes people are turning to him as a kind of last resort, because they can't find truth elsewhere. His show's audience has grown between 10 percent and 15 percent every year of the Bush administration and is now at a record high. That's more a sign of disappointment with the government and the media than an endorsement of the show, he says.

"Nothing says to the government, `I'm ashamed of you' more than Stewart-Colbert '08," he said at the festival. "The reason people keep presenting us in that manner is because they aren't happy with what they're being served. It's a real sign of how sad people are."

Yet even as Stewart downplays his hero status among young people, there is evidence he is having an impact on them. The University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey found that viewers of The Daily Show answered more political questions correctly than those who did not watch late-night comedy shows.

And a study released last week by Indiana University found that in 2004 The Daily Show devoted the same amount of time to substantive political news as the network evening news programs. Voters aged 18-30 were just as likely to rely on The Daily Show for news as the Big Three networks - and that's not necessarily a bad thing, said the study's author, Julia R. Fox, an assistant professor of telecommunications at Indiana University.

"They're walking away with as much substance from one as from the other," Fox said, "which is to say, not much."

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