It's easy to be flip about the deep implications of the Writers Guild of America strike, which is now stretching into its second month. After all, what's the harm in missing a few episodes of Two and a Half Men?
But this take is too facile. In today's media landscape, more and more serious-news coverage -- particularly political news -- is coming from written (read: fake) TV-news programs, with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as exhibits A1 and A2. We're also in the midst of a wide-open presidential campaign. And with those shows out of commission, stories that could change the course of the race haven't been getting the attention they otherwise would.
Consider, first, some recent testimonials to the serious journalistic importance of fake-news programming. (While The Daily Show, as a fake newscast, is the purest manifestation of fake news, I'm using the term to describe news coverage from programs such as Late Show With David Letterman, as well.) In 2004, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that about as many young viewers were getting their presidential-campaign news from comedy programs including The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live (21 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds who were polled) as from the nightly newscasts of NBC, ABC and CBS (23 percent of the same group). The same study found that a whopping 61 percent of that same demographic got their campaign information from comedy and/or late-night talk shows, either regularly or occasionally.
In 2006, meanwhile, an Indiana University study of coverage of the '04 race found that The Daily Show contained just as much substantive information as its network-news counterparts. Is it really surprising, then, that Democrat John Edwards announced his 2004 presidential candidacy on The Daily Show? Or that Republican John McCain did the same on Letterman's show earlier this year, with fellow Republican Fred Thompson following suit on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno?
Now consider three stories that broke during the current fake-news vacuum. First, there was the federal indictment of Bernie Kerik, failed Homeland Security secretary nominee and former campaign-driver-turned-police-commissioner of GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. (There's also the allegation, by former Kerik paramour Judith Regan, that two Fox News officials urged her to lie to investigators about details of Kerik's life to prevent harm to Giuliani's campaign.) Next, there was GOP hopeful John McCain's indulgent treatment of a South Carolina woman who asked him, in reference to Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton, "How do we beat the bitch?" -- and McCain's subsequent assertion that CNN's coverage of this incident demonstrated the network's liberal bias. Then there was the decision, by dark-horse GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, to produce an unabashedly self-parodic TV spot featuring film-vigilante Chuck Norris.
On a substantive level, the Kerik development was easily the most significant, since Giuliani's long-standing patronage of a man with alleged mob ties raises serious questions about his ability to run the country. But all three developments positively seethed fake-news potential. And now -- for a certain segment of the population -- it's almost like they never happened.
Or is it? Steve Bodow, The Daily Show's head writer, admits that it's frustrating watching choice material go untapped. (He calls the Nov. 15 Democratic debate in Las Vegas a "big meatball," and says Giuliani is becoming "quite a resource.") But Bodow adds that he's skeptical of studies that identify The Daily Show as a primary news source for any group. "I don't have any statistical knowledge or anything, but it seems implausible to me," he tells the Phoenix. "It seems like the type of thing people might be prone to say because it seems like a fun thing to say, rather than because it's actually true."
This is a deceptively subtle argument: Since The Daily Show is now a dominant media brand for twentysomethings, it's not implausible that twentysomethings would brand themselves by exaggerating their relationship to it. But Bodow's skepticism itself needs to be treated skeptically. After all, one way for Bodow and other fake-news purveyors to guard against increased expectations that might accompany increased influence is to downplay those claims of influence, or dismiss them as exaggerated. (Stewart himself did this when the Pew study was released in 2004, saying that a lot of the respondents were "probably high," according to the Associated Press.)
Another point worth pondering, as the fake-news drought stretches on, is the distinction between the medium's various purveyors. "I would make a delineation between Leno and Letterman and Conan and the Colberts, the Stewarts, even Bill Maher," argues Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "By the time [the first group is] commenting on current affairs, caricaturing political leaders, or joking about them, they're essentially codifying public opinion that's congealed for a while. These are still, at their heart and soul, mainstream media outlets; they're not looking to insult people or be seen as ideological. Having said that, once they go after a guy -- once they create a political narrative of some sort -- you're in trouble. That's a sure sign it's reached critical mass."
The flip side of this argument is that Stewart, Colbert and Maher are edgier than their late-night network counterparts: quicker to the punch, more ideological. But these characterizations come with asterisks, too. Julia Fox, the Indiana University associate professor who authored the aforementioned study on The Daily Show's substance, insists that -- Stewart's 2004 endorsement of John Kerry notwithstanding -- The Daily Show doesn't have a liberal bias. Instead, she contends, "it has bias against people with political power who aren't using it properly. And since the Republicans have been in charge of most things since it's been such a popular show, they're often the target of it."
What's more, while Stewart, et al., may generally be ahead of the conventional-wisdom curve compared with Letterman and his network late-night colleagues, this distinction doesn't always hold up. Remember the "Dean Scream" of January 2004, which helped halt Howard Dean's march to the Democratic nomination? The network late-night hosts didn't cede that campaign twist to Stewart and Co. Instead, they jumped all over it, doing their part -- along with a lot of other people -- to cast Dean as hilariously and frighteningly unhinged. (Quoth Leno: "Howard Dean announced today he will campaign in seven states. The states are Rage, Frenzy, Fury, Wrath, Fever, Agitation and Delirium. Yeeeaaah!")
Here's the million-dollar question: If a Dean Scream happened right now, would anyone notice? Or -- without the fake-news complex to drive it into the collective consciousness -- would it just quietly fade away?
We may already have an answer. If you're a Giuliani supporter, you're probably relieved that Stewart and Letterman can't run wild with the Kerik indictment. If you're not, you're probably marveling at Giuliani's good luck. Either way, you've got ample proof of just how important fake news can be.
Adam Reilly is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix, where this story originally appeared.