And a Fool Shall Lead Them: The Popularity of Fake News Shows and the Battle Between Truth and Truthiness
(This article was originally written in 2008, though it is still relevant today…)
For decades, since the advent of television and, even perhaps with the popularity of radio, Americans tuned in to hear the day’s news from highly respected and serious-minded newscasters. This ritual brought the world closer, as from the comfort of their homes, the average person could be informed about what was occurring in both his or her own country, and in countries around the world. The most respected newscasters had a sense of gravity about them: a resounding voice, a reassuring manner, and an almost parent-like authority. But by the 1970s, a changing trend began in earnest. What first started with Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” sketch, soon morphed in the 1980s into HBO’s Not Necessarily the News, and then to the current Comedy Central “fake news” shows The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. While political humor and satire were ever-present in the work of many comedians and writers, fake news shows presented a new level of socio-political satire, presented tongue-in-cheek and with farcical perspectives on the actual news of the day.
In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington, DC, participants were asked questions pertaining to news of the day, both political and human interest (Pew Research Center, par. 2). Many news outlets were included in the survey, including newspapers, internet sites, cable news outlets such as CNN, NPR, network morning shows, local news, and more. Interestingly, the comedy news shows The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were included on the list. While they are formatted like traditional news shows, or pundits like Bill O’Reilly, both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are intrinsically comedy programs. According to the results of this survey, when measuring the knowledge level of the audiences of each “news” outlet, the two comedy programs topped the list at 54%, tying them with major newspaper outlets, and putting them just ahead of News Hour with Jim Lehrer (Pew Research Center, par. 50). Now, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report audiences are more knowledgeable than the other audiences because participants were able to list multiple news outlets and therefore could be represented by more than one category. The interesting depth psychological importance of this poll was that these comedy shows were being considered on a par with traditional news shows in terms of informing the public. Tricksters and Fools pretending to be serious newsmen are now educating the American people, apparently rather effectively.
The appeal of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are especially evident with the younger demographic of television viewers. These are viewers who tend to get their news directly from the internet, on-demand and up-to-the-minute. They’ve lost patience with authoritative parent-like information dissemination, and look instead for easy relatability and transparency. Merrill Brown, the former editor of MSNBC.com, states on PBS.org’s online article, Apathetic or Unimpressed? Where Generation Next Is Taking the Media, “In this new world of journalism, young people want a personal level of engagement and want those presenting the news to them to be transparent in their assumptions, biases and history” (Read, par. 31).
In a post-9/11 world, the American psyche is waking up to realize that not everything we are told is truthful. Though America prides itself on freedom of the press, little awareness was previously paid as to how the press could still be manipulated and biased. According to The Center for Public Integrity, studies have been done about the allegations and repercussions of false statements leading to the Iraq war:
“The cumulative effect of these false statements — amplified by thousands of news stories and broadcasts — was massive, with the media coverage creating an almost impenetrable din for several critical months in the run-up to war,” the study concluded. “Some journalists — indeed, even some entire news organizations — have since acknowledged that their coverage during those prewar months was far too deferential and uncritical. These mea culpas notwithstanding, much of the wall-to-wall media coverage provided additional, ‘independent’ validation of the Bush administration’s false statements about Iraq,” it said. (Lewis and Reading-Smith, par. 10)
Whether this study is itself biased is a matter of perspective, but it does reveal a slow, but growing distrust of information dissemination and of hidden political agendas, which, in turn, has created a space for the success of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. While at one time, Americans may have laughed along with the keen comedic insights into the news of the day with SNL’s “Weekend Update,” they would have most certainly, turned to a newspaper or the network news to hear the “real” news. Today, that trend has shifted. The appeal of a show that can entertain and educate all in one, provides a sense of relief from the hardships of everyday life; a life shadowed by a controversial war, a difficult economy, the undercurrent threat of terrorism, and seemingly increasing natural disasters.
Enter the Trickster, or perhaps its close archetypal relative, the Fool. It is easy to see in Stephen Colbert, who plays a character named Stephen Colbert, a politically conservative pundit, as the Fool at King Lear’s court. The Fool, though he acts silly and inane, is definitely the wisest person in the court, and can see through the illusions that the King, his daughters and the others of his court are lost in. Or perhaps Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is the little boy who declares that the emperor has no clothes; his punchlines delivered with a meaningful look and a smirk. Through his jokes he shows us what is happening beneath the story, to a truth he wants us to understand. Both Stewart and Colbert have written best-seller news-themed comedy books, the former’s America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, and the latter’s I Am America (And So Can You!). Both satirize political themes and enable us to laugh at our own self-importance, a trait indicative of the presence of the Fool.
It is the Fool that enlightens and entertains us; who shows us just how silly we are, especially in those moments in which we take ourselves too seriously. He is a trickster and a clown, whose schemes and plans poke and prod at the carefully constructed “reality” around him. He questions authority and the status quo, though he is essentially non-threatening, and he often appears when old modes of thinking or living are not serving us anymore.
Though Jon Stewart preceded Stephen Colbert into the world of comedic news, Colbert has taken his role as America’s own personal Fool to new heights (or perhaps depths). In 2005, Colbert coined the word “truthiness,” to “describe things that a person claims to know intuitively or ‘from the gut’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts” (Wikipedia, par. 1). “Truthiness” went on to be named Word of the Year in 2006 by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, though it has yet to actually appear in the reference book (About the Show, par. 1). As Stephen Colbert stated, “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you” (Stephen for President, video clip). The underlying satirical point is made by referencing news that is presented to the public as fact, but may actually have no validity whatsoever; Once again showing us the crafty wisdom of the playful Fool archetype.
Both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have reported on controversial topics, and they have also both hosted many politicians on their shows, including presidential candidates, but only Stephen Colbert was willing to take the satire further. In 2007, in a Fool’s stroke of genius, Colbert decided to run for President, not solely as a sketch on his program, but as an actual candidate. Granted, he decided to attempt to get on the ballot only in his home state of South Carolina, but he played out all the trappings of a candidacy for the enjoyment and, in some senses, education of his viewing public. For instance, on his October 16th show, Colbert decided to run as both a Democrat and as a Republican (Stephen for President, video clip). On the following night’s show, he shared with his viewers his realization that it only cost $2,500 (or a petition signed by 3,000 registered Democrats) to register to run as a Democrat, but it cost $35,000 (including late fees) to register as a Republican candidate in South Carolina. Therefore, this ultra-conservative character decided it was better to run as a Democrat (Stephen for President, video clip). Colbert made up t-shirts, bumper stickers, and buttons, and made public appearances kissing babies and other clichéd political candidate public relations mainstays, including accepting Doritos as a presidential campaign sponsor. Ultimately, on November 1, 2007, Stephen Colbert was denied from actually appearing on the ballot in South Carolina, as the state’s Democratic Party committee did not think that he was a serious candidate; Both he and his audience mourned the loss of his candidacy on his show that night (Stephen for President, video clip).
During this past election period, Colbert once again found a way to teach the viewers about the political system through his unique, court jester style. Colbert created a Super PAC and proceeded to raise quite a bit of money for charity and other organizations. He guided his audience through the opaque, yet inane world of campaign finances, showing the world what was happening behind the scenes in the political world.
The need for Fool-delivered news and reality in the modern age, perhaps indicates our collective psyche’s desire for the truth beneath the rhetoric. A lightening of the heart as we face some serious challenges, all the while appreciating that we are let in on the joke, rather than taken in by it. It is ultimately a sign of a cultural transformation, a shift in awareness. We are embracing the Fool, and in return, we are the wiser for it.
Nicole K. Miller ©2013 revised
About the Show/The Colbert Report/Comedy Central. 6 July 2008. <http://www.comedycentral.com/colbertreport/about.jhtml>
Lewis, Charles and Reading-Smith, Mark. False Pretenses: Iraq-The War Card. The Center for Public Integrity. 23 Jan 2008 <http://www.publicintegrity.org/warcard/>
Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions: What Americans Know: 1989-2007. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Washington, DC. 15 April 2007<http://people- press.org/report/319/public-knowledge-of-current-affairs-little-changed-by-news-and-information-revolutions>
Read, Oliver. Apathetic or Unimpressed? Where Generation Next Is Taking the Media. The Online Newshour: Generation Next/PBS. 19 June 2006. <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/generation-next/demographic/media_06-19.html>
Stephen for President/The Colbert Report/Comedy Central. (video clips). 6 July 2008. <http://www.comedycentral.com/colbertreport/videos.jhtml?collectionId=12389>
Truthiness-Wikipedia,The Free Encyclopedia. 6 July 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness>