Dr Joe Atkinson's lecture notes for the 'University of Auckland Winter Lectures 2010: The End(s) of Journalism?'

Dr Joe Atkinson, senior lecturer in the Department of Political Studies

As I've sat down there with you over these past few weeks listening to some very erudite colleagues discuss the current malaise of journalism, it has occurred to me that I've never heard so many highly intelligent people bending quite so far over backwards to be kind to the New Zealand media. None of them seems to want to be tainted by my reported claim that 'journalism is going to hell in a hand basket.' So let me clear something up right at the outset. I'm neither here to scapegoat the media, nor to demonise their commercial paymasters. And nothing could be further from my purpose than to dismiss as irrelevant the views of that diminishing number of excellent New Zealand journalists who still have permanent jobs. So for the benefit of the media professionals in my audience, if there are any, you can relax. I've not come here to scapegoat the media. Not at all. I've come here mock them.

But before I do that, let me be serious for a minute. You can hardly blame journalists for not doing a better job when the commercial system they inhabit is forever asking them to do a worse one. Nor can what has happened to our journalism be divorced from global forces beyond our control. As Gavin Ellis will explain in next week's lecture, we are scarcely alone in what we have experienced here. Even the neo-liberal policy ideas that, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, we adopted in the 1980s and 90s, and which drove so much more than broadcasting deregulation-and in the process levied such a heavy toll on our egalitarian and collectivist traditions-these larger forces were not at all amenable to media rebuff, not at least as long as the elite consensus prevailed. As I said here 18 years ago in my last Winter Lecture, "[the press] is almost never an independent player in this game. It can fill valleys but it cannot climb hills; other political forces command the heights." So if journalism really is going to hell in a hand basket, and democracy with it-which was an initial premise of these lectures rather than a settled conclusion-then I think the politicians are far more deserving scapegoats than the media themselves.

But the end result is that we are saddled with a media system based on one big lie. The lie is that the more deregulated the market, the more competitive it is, the better it will satisfy audience wants, whereas the opposite is actually closer to the truth: hyper-competition in news media markets is more likely to set off a race-for-the-bottom. Digital convergence, channel proliferation and the fragmentation of audiences have brought about a flight to entertainment and intensified pressures to attract audiences and to cut costs; pressures that often overwhelm any inclination to serve the general public. Whereas network broadcasting executives once tried to usher all-comers into a big tent, their post-broadcasting counterparts now target niche audiences with more polarised and partisan appeals (Turow, 1997). In terms of quantity, we have entered an age of communicative abundance-there's more news than ever before-and yet our newsrooms are shedding reporters like dandruff and our political communications have become increasingly 'mediatised'-that is, bent to serve media purposes-and thus more truncated, personalised, professionalised and cynical (Coleman and Blumler, 2009: 56-60).

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Even if you believe the internet will eventually produce valuable new public spaces-and I personally have my doubts about that if it remains unregulated-the fact is that, with the partial exception of Radio New Zealand, the news outlets that still attract by far our largest audiences, TVNZ's

One News

, the

New Zealand Herald

and the Sunday papers-those outlets with which governments most engage on a daily basis, and which even the new media depend on for visibility-now have less room and fewer resources for serious journalism. Even Radio New Zealand has not been immune from these pressures, and there is no reason to suppose that any future merger with TV7 might strengthen its performance.

I don't wish to leave the impression either that I think commercial journalism is worthless. I think some of it is very good. There are significant overlaps between commercial and democratic purposes, such that

any

kind of news consumption is better than none. Pippa Norris (2000) posits a 'virtuous circle' linked to news consumption which increases citizen involvement, trust, efficacy and mobilization. But there is also convincing evidence that those who watch

public

television news are

more

knowledgeable,

more

trusting and

more

politically active than those who watch commercial bulletins (Aarts and Semetko 2003) and that more heavily regulated public service systems are far better suppliers of public knowledge (Curran, Iyengar, Lund and Salovaara-Moring 2009). These findings seems to hold regardless of prior political interest, age, education, ethnicity and other types of media exposure. It goes without saying that there are also a host of studies demonstrating that Fox News viewers are woefully misinformed on a wide range of politically-relevant matters.

Finally, note that the 'race for the bottom' syndrome is not confined to mainstream news markets, but applies to highly specialised information markets as well. Aeron Davis (2007) found that deregulation of price-sensitive financial information on the London Stock Exchange impaired its objectivity, accuracy and diversity while raising its cost. This in turn led to the systematic over-pricing of shares before the 2000 crash. I hasten to add that this insight is not simply the opinion of an Ivory Tower academic serenely cloistered from industrial realities, but was based on in-depth interviews conducted with financial media and news wire service journalists, brokers' analysts and professional fund managers in London's 'square mile' financial district. On the basis of their testimony, Davis concluded:

Media and information are key resources that are essential for the stable functioning of any social sphere - be it on any scale and in any social, political or economic context. If they are subjected to unrestrained market forces, left under-resourced and under-regulated, the stability and longevity of that sphere is jeopardised.

What About Fake News?

So where does 'fake' news come into this equation, and is it, as some of its defenders claim, a light at the end of the tunnel? But first, what is it? Our paradigm case is

The Daily Show

which plays here on Sky's

Comedy Central

channel, and is also available on the internet.

The Daily Show

is a half-hour mock news programme and hybrid talk show that parodies news for the first half of the programme before assuming a more typical talk-show format (similar to Letterman, Leno or Rove) where Stewart joshes affably - with occasional interrogative moments -- with studio guests.

The Daily Show

's website gleefully trumpets its populist inversion of (boring and dishonest) conventional journalism: 'One anchor, five correspondents, zero credibility. If you're tired of the stodginess of the evening newscasts, if you can't bear to sit through the spinmeisters and shills on the 24-hour cable news networks, don't miss

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

, a nightly half-hour series unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy'. Though originally hosted by Craig Kilborn,

The Daily Show

hit its stride when Stewart took over in 1999. The show rapidly accumulated critical acclaim through numerous Emmy, Peabody, and TV Critics awards. Other signs of growing prestige include numerous invitations for Stewart, Colbert, Oliver and co to give magazine interviews and appear on other television programmes, take part in academic panel discussions, and deliver commencement addresses. In 2006 Stewart was named by

Television Week

the fifth most powerful person in television news (Greppi 2006: 59). Last year he was rated the most trusted newsperson in the post-Cronkite era in an online poll by

Time

magazine (Jones and Baym 2010: 278).

The opening news segment imitates the anchor-centred style of television news reporting, with Stewart presenting the day's top stories, showing video clips, and spoofing the convention of a studio anchor interviewing 'on location' reporters, or bogus 'senior correspondents' who make out they're coming live via satellite from sham locations. The show mimics mainstream news shows with commanding music, a grandiose set design backed by a wall of television monitors, top corner insert graphics, beat reporters, and a well-dressed and personable anchorman. In contrast to many of its comic precursors (such as

Not the Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image,

or

The Simpsons

) it doesn't use footage of professional actors pretending to be news makers, but that of 'real' press conferences with actual politicians acting out genuinely consequential real-world roles. Rather than invented events, it deals with real news happenings that have already been covered by mainstream television news shows during the day.

In the clip I'm going to play, Stewart critiques the bias, triviality and inaccuracy of Fox News, the 'race-to-the-bottom' antics of CNN, and the pseudo-urgency of cable news which provides an excuse for lack of depth even though the show has 24 hours to play with.

As you saw in that clip, Stewart ventriloquises ordinary viewer reactions to political and journalistic spin with embodied displays of disbelief or mock outrage and bleeped expletives (Day 2009: 96):

If a regular newscaster cannot roll and eye or arch a brow at a politician's statement, Stewart can fall off his chair doing so. Thus he is able to act as the viewer's surrogate, screaming at the television in frustration or summarily labelling someone "full of shit".

The Daily Show

exploits television's self-serving claim to 'liveness' and immediacy by filming in front of a studio audience, but it also disturbs it by displaying elements of construction, revealing ingratiating hints of its own manipulations as well as those of officialdom:

*

Stewart stopping in the middle of a bad routine, breaking frame as he shakes his head in disbelief, or mugs at the camera.

*

Stewart using self-deprecation by confessing an assertion he has made was 'just made up'

*

Montage sequences of successive official 'talking points' to show political use of strategic repetition.

*

Juxtaposition of contradictory official assertions or denials from different times

*

Splicing together of one question with an answer to an entirely different one.

The clips of political talking points are designed to reveal how the mainstream media simply reproduce "official" propaganda. The show also plays (pre-recorded and edited) ambush interviews of politicians, newsmakers and citizens, some of whom (in the manner of Baron Cohen's

Ali G

or

Borat

) are clearly unaware of having been set up for self-mockery. Both the ambush interviews and the later live studio talks with politicians, authors and celebrities, rely on Stewart's ability, and that of several collaborators, to improvise and thus offer a deliberate contrast to their straight news counterparts. 'Live crosses' to mock correspondents such as Samatha Bee, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert are also partly ad libbed, supplying an arch contrast between the polished word-perfect authority of 'real news' performers and the bumbling incompetence and lunatic antics of stage 'improv' - inviting an inference that the straight journalist's serious persona is just a mask to lend surface plausibility to nonsense. Colbert's improvisation skills are similarly evident in his companion parody of Bill O'Reilly (of Fox News's

The O'Reilly Factor

); an impersonation that was spun off into the central character of

The Colbert Report

.

For Fake News

The main claim of Stewart's scholarly supporters is that his brand of satire is distinct from, and superior to, the more conventional and stereotypical forms of comedy featured on other late night television shows. Rather than being amusingly but blandly apolitical, this show (together with

The Colbert Report

and

Real Time with Bill Maher

) is held to be genuinely self-reflexive, dialogical, deliberative and critical. Not only is it supposed to expose official propaganda and media complicity, but it is also said to "do a better job in engaging individuals in reasoned discussions that are important in upholding a democratic system" and to be capable of providing "audiences with meaningful resources for citizenship and civic engagement." (Jones and Baym 2010: 279).

Because they don't pretend to be anything other than television comedians, fake news anchors are said to be less hypocritical than their mainstream news counterparts: less authoritative and less patronising to viewers, more able to satirise spin, puncture pretence and belittle bombast (Smolkin 2007). Unencumbered by objectivity, accuracy or balance, they have more license to "play the role of speaking what goes unsaid in the mainstream news, or of highlighting the non-sense of what

is

said" (Borden and Tew 2007, p. 309). Further, comedy is said to render the performance "potentially influential by privileging the audience's point of view and making its members feel smart' (Borden and Tew 2007, p. 311).

Jeffrey Jones (2007) compared one day's presidential campaign coverage by

TDS

and

CNN

and judged the former more informative and better at exposing candidate spin and 'highlighting the political rhetoric itself, showing the false statements,

ad hominem

attacks, pandering, and populist appeals ... [thus] providing viewers [with] additional information about the candidates beyond policy positions and campaign strategies and maneuvers (sic)' (Jones 2007, pp. 142-3). Jones added (p. 145):

[B]eing fake does not mean the information [The Daily Show] imparts is untrue. Indeed, as with most social and political satire, its humor offers a means of re-establishing common-sense truths to counter the spectacle, ritual, pageantry, artifice, and verbosity that often cloak the powerful ... Citizens know that public artifice exists, which is ultimately why the satire that points it out is funny-they just need someone skilful enough to articulate the critique.

Even if younger citizens were really relying on late night television comedians for news and information about politics, therefore, Jones (p. 146) concludes that 'the fate of the [U.S.] republic doesn't seem in jeopardy if a comedy program like

The Daily Show

is a source for their knowledge of public affairs'.

More sophisticated recent versions of this argument raise the novel possibility that the show's unique brand of satire combines two contrasting forms of classical rhetoric, both

epideic

tic and deliberative (Morreale 2009). This is surprising because, in the classical tradition, these rhetorical forms were regarded as mutually exclusive and satire and parody were seen as distinctively epideictic. The ancient Greeks conceived of epideictic rhetoric as a form of speech appropriate to civic ritual, distinguishing it from

deliberative

and

forensic

forms of rhetoric more appropriate to the assembly and the courts. Past-oriented and non-argumentative, it was implicitly an inferior form of public address used for civic rituals and ceremonial occasions where praise and blame are bestowed on persons, objects, or events towards whom the audience is already predisposed. Among its standard techniques are the rhetorical question, the apostrophe (an exclamatory passage of speech often addressed to dead hero), use of familiar slogans or catchphrases to signify shared experience, imaginary direct address to the audience, and use of the pronoun "we" to establish rapport. It is a form of (often flowery or 'over-the-top') speech whereby a community reaffirms its beliefs by having them emotionally amplified on a public occasion. Both Stewart and Colbert borrow heavily from these generic techniques and, in so doing, generally avoid overt deliberative or forensic arguments; that is, arguments engaging directly with opponents or calling for some particular action.

It is not always clear whether it is satiric performance, per se, rather than the occasional breakout episodes of genuine argument and engagement that provide the crucial evidence of Stewart's (or Colbert's) alleged concern for civic discourse and emancipatory projects. Out-of-role periods of serious deliberation are largely confined to the studio exchanges with newsmakers in the final segment of

TDS

, or to external appearances on shows like CNN's

Crossfire

and PBS's

Bill Moyer's Journal

, testimony in the show's mock history textbook,

America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction

, or to political opinions voiced in panel discussions, magazine interviews, commencement addresses and other public appearances.

But the question is whether the 'fake' news (satiric/parodic) aspects of the show are beneficial for democracy-if not a substitute for real news then a useful antidote to it-so we need to look more closely at those generic traits. Here again the defence case rests on theoretical arguments about satire and close readings of

The Daily Show

episodes which are supposed to invoke a deliberate contrast with the monological discourse of serious news. Where straight news assumes "an epistemological certainty" satire is held to be implicitly dialogical: "a discourse of inquiry, a rhetoric of challenge that seeks through the asking of unanswered questions to clarify the underlying morality of a situation" (Baym 2005). Thus, of a 'live cross' exchange between Stewart and "Senior Terror Linguist" John Oliver on the Bush Administration's implausibly convoluted semantics of torture, Morreale (2009: 109) observes:

The posing of questions and answers to get to a "truth" emulates the Socratic method of inquiry, although here the process makes Bush's comments appear ridiculous. Indeed, the entire dialogue mocks the assumption of truth that exists outside discourse ... It is a kind of verbal play that provokes and unsettles the audience rather than provides closure.

Similarly,

The Colbert Report

parodies the archetypical right-wing pundit Bill O'Reilly with a "continuously double voiced" performance where Colbert's literal language is placed in ironic juxtaposition with its implied meaning. In "The Word" segment, for instance, Colbert admonishes President Bush for insisting that he's "flexible and open-minded": "If we had wanted that, we would have elected Al Gore," says Colbert (ventriloquising O'Reilly), while on the screen beside him The Word responds: "We Did" (Baym 2009:131). Thus the famous Colbertian neologisms of "truthiness", "wikiality", and "jacksquat" are construed as providing "a modernist point of agitation

against

dominant political inclinations to reject objective inquiry and intellectual engagement in favour of hollow political spectacle." These relativist notions are amplified to absurdity by Colbert/O'Reilly as a way of highlighting the implications of the post-modern rejection of empirical inquiry, reasoned discourse, and technocratic expertise. They can thus be seen to have an educative and deliberative role consistent with the finest traditions of journalism, but it is also fairly demanding stuff calling for fairly sophisticated readings.

Against Fake News:

Before we get too carried away about the journalistic virtues of fake news, therefore, there are at least four reasons for exercising some caution on this score:

*

First, it discounts frequent self-reports from the practitioners themselves.

*

Secondly, it overlooks the anti-political fatalism of much populist mockery.

*

Thirdly, it assumes that more robustly deliberative and forensic discourses are untainted by comic derision.

*

Fourthly, it ignores the evidence of cognitive psychology on role of humour in disrupting rather than stimulating critical thinking.

Let's consider these one by one.

Self-reports:

Many of the claims made on behalf of "fake" news are sharply at odds with the more self-effacing claims that Stewart, Colbert and their fellow satirists make about themselves, as well as with the testimony of earlier practitioners of political satire and parody. Tom Lehrer, the satirical songwriter/pianist of the 1960s, recounts British comedian Peter Cook's quip, in founding London's

Establishment Club

in 1961, that it was a satirical venue 'modelled on those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War' (Davis 2003). Despite being written mostly by left-wingers (including the occasional Marxist), successful satire tends to be politically conservative because it is essentially a mode of ingratiating discourse that, in Lehrer's words, 'titillates the converted' (Davis 2003):

The audience usually has to be with you, I'm afraid. I always regarded myself as not even preaching to the converted, I was titillating the converted. The audiences like to think that satire is doing something. But, in fact, it is mostly to leave themselves satisfied. Satisfied rather than angry, which is what they should be.

Lehrer is not talking here about satire tailored for mass consumption, but about an elite form addressed to well-educated, fairly partisan audiences in old-fashioned theatres and supper clubs like Cook's Soho

Establishment Club

or San Francisco's

hungry i

. Commercial television, by contrast, is far more wary of overtly partisan humour, and more reluctant to cause offence. Post-broadcast attention-grabbing on niche cable channels enable it to be slightly more pointed and partisan, but it can't move very far away from its targeted audience. The main commercial effect is still to reinforce its lowest common denominator urges.

Since politicians are both widely unpopular and always striving to demonstrate conviction, sincerity, probity, humour, modesty and so on, the satirist can safely reinforce their expected lack of these attributes. Stewart is quite explicit about this being a primary focus:

What we go after are not the actual policies but the façade behind them. We work in the area between the makeup they're wearing and the real face. In that space you can pretty much hammer away at anybody.

Here, according to Stephen Wagg, the 'Goffmanesque' notion of

performance

through which "the public world is mediated to the private one ... acknowledges the difference between 'image' and 'reality' but gives equal validity to each" and treats everything - advertising, public relations, entertainment, politics, journalism, etc -- as a strategic 'game' involving the other-directed posturing of public figures. This is a philosophy, incidentally, that Wagg finds "wholly marriageable with" neo-liberalism (Wagg 1992: 258-9). Its underlying premise is that there is

always

a mask,

always

a gap between performance and reality and-by extension into public choice theory-

always

an ulterior motive; no such thing as altruism. As MSNBC's

Hardball

host, Chris Matthews, explains (Sella 2000, p. 74):

The bottom line of a joke, really, is its premise. Jokes start with their point: the ostensibly agreed-on idea that Gore is a robot or Bush an idiot. Once the setup is delivered, the damage is done.

Human nature here is often crudely archetypal: Al Gore is stiff, George W. Bush dumb, Tony Blair a puppet; or, for local examples, Helen Clark is a dominatrix, Sir Robert Muldoon a pig, Richard Prebble a mad dog. The task of the media, and also of political opponents, is to turn these archetypes into negative brands. There's nothing fair, or democratic, or even vaguely deliberative about this kind of political stereotyping.

Anti-political fatalism:

Recall, in this context, Jones' earlier acknowledgement that political satire is funny because citizens recognise and accept its underlying premise ('that public artifice exists'), and that the redeeming virtue of such humour resides in supplying 'a means of re-establishing common-sense truths' (Jones 2007, p. 145). Political satire is mercilessly hard on soft targets but easier on hard ones. We are not generally being invited to laugh at ourselves, or to reconsider our settled political views, but to celebrate and confirm our prejudices against unpopular others. Calling politicians liars, or political protestors stupid offends no popular belief. In a recent

Daily Show

episode where a group of Tea Partiers is recruited to advise G20 protesters about staying 'on message', it's difficult to decide which side comes off worst.

This is not left-wing politics so much as a refusal to take politics of any kind too seriously. It is, in this sense, inherently conservative. Kenneth Tynan once characterised the British television satire

Beyond the Fringe

as "anti-reactionary without being progressive" and Peter Cook testified to having "moved to the left from my very solid Nazi position at the age of sixteen." As John Street explains:

For the satirist, there is no order, only chaos, a chaos that is bred in a world moved by individual greed and pride. Such a vision sees all attempts to improve society as deluded folly. This is a perspective which is necessarily antidemocratic and reactionary, and its takes its sustenance from a moral perspective which treats all deviation from narrowly prescribed norms

[e.g., homosexuality & adultery]

as ripe for mockery and condemnation.

'Fake' news is also parody and, as such, parasitic upon straight news, both for its subject matter and for its modes of address. Hutcheon writes (1885: 75) that:

Parody's conventions ultimately remain authorized-authorized by the very norm it seeks to subvert ... Even in mocking, parody reinforces; in formal terms, it inscribes the mocked conventions onto itself. Thereby guaranteeing their continued existence.

The Colbert Report

proceeds from an implicit common standpoint of legitimate news practices linked to conventional journalist norms. Its mission is to subvert these norms for comic effect but, since too much nuance might obscure the joke, the audience is called upon to approve those conventions as if they were transparent, uncomplicated, black and white standards. Thus Colbert's "truthiness" is a populist inversion of truth which venerates individual experience over objective evidence:

knowing

in my heart rather than

thinking

in my head. His 'feelings-as-logic' is an inversion of reason by which ranting idiocy is presented as absolute certainty. "Wikiality" is employed as comic shorthand for the ability to create a world, even when you haven't got a clue what you're talking about, simply by agreeing on it. "Jacksquat" is empty political speech, hot air or bullshit. Black and white mirror images, rather than carefully nuanced evaluations are what are called upon to do the work here.

This is hilarious stuff, of course, but in enacting Bill O'Reilly's epideictic rhetorical style, Colbert sacrifices deliberative engagement and undermining modes of argument. Instead of directly confronting extreme 'rightwing' beliefs, he amplifies them for comic effect, as if his audience also shared them. He attacks O'Reilly, therefore, not by forensic scrutiny of the policies he supports, and not by offering evidence for an alternative policy approach, but by replicating his empty bluster and arrogant refusal to engage. Colbert quite deliberately constructs the voice of his onscreen persona as a stretched version of populist epideictic rhetoric (Daly 2009):

The emotion of the moment is assumed and amplified by a single voice and regurgitated back to the country at the lowest common denominator ... It can be swathed in idea, but it's essentially an emotional event. I'm regurgitating back to you how you feel about it-I am you. I am you!

In this ventriloquist monologue, O'Reilly's factual and logical errors survive as

a priori

assumptions, essential to 'get' the joke but substantially unaddressed and, to that extent, protected from rebuttal by logic and evidence. Neither believers nor unbelievers are being confronted here; the political status quo remains undisturbed.

Audience effects:

While there is some quantitative evidence that the politically uninterested can indeed obtain useful political knowledge as a by-product of watching infotainment shows, the measures of political learning used (for example, self-reported learning, name recognition rather than recall, and issue attention) are weak indicators of political knowledge, and any modest gains tend to be offset by countervailing negatives (Baum 2007; Baumgartner and Morris 2006; Cooper and Bailey 2008). Even optimists concede that the quality and diversity of information filtered through 'the relatively narrow lens of the entertainment-oriented soft news media' might not lead to better citizens, or better policies (Baum 2002, p. 106; 2007, p. 115). With exposure to soft news coverage of foreign affairs, for instance, a much wider range of the electorate may come to believe it understands such policies, even when its picture of the world remains narrow, sensationalised and misleading. Nonetheless

The Daily Show

does generally contain at least as much political content as the network news bulletins, and its entertainment aspects make it no less informative than them (Cassino and Bessen-Cassino 2009). Its audience is also comparatively small (1.5 million compared to 6-8 million for each of the network news bulletins, 4-6 million for other late night comedies), but comparatively better-educated and more politically sophisticated. The median audience age is thirty-five. It thus appears to attract savvy, well-educated liberals who are sophisticated enough to get its jokes, and who watch it mainly for entertainment, or as a supplement to hard news watching rather than a replacement for it. Thus, to the extent that it is critical of the Fox News and the Christian Far Right, the show is probably preaching to the converted. It may reinforce existing preferences, but-precisely because it attracts the savvy rather than the ill-informed or gullible--it probably doesn't change many minds. That may be reassuring, given its affinities with neo-liberalism and anti-political fatalism, but it hardly makes the show a major prosletizer for the democratic left.

The claims of the fake news mediators not to 'speak down' to their audience cannot conceal their generic refusal to support democratic institutions, or collective purposes, let alone to provide any constructive model of civic discourse. And by dwelling on mediated symptoms of the abuse of power, while neglecting the institutions that shape it, there is a possibility that they may actually defuse the ire of the left, rendering it unfocused and impotent. Elite control is helped rather than hindered when the public comes to believe that politics is deluded and corrupt and consequently choose to opt out, or when the media become a reason-free zone, devoid of explicit political content. The more pressing danger, however, may not be to the relatively sophisticated viewers of

The Daily Show

, but that the success of fake news might push straight news in exactly the wrong direction, towards more entertainment and further away from the serious business of news gathering. We don't have to look far to appreciate the extent to which the show is beholden to the demands of a commercialised, increasingly fragmented, hyper-competitive and youth-oriented media culture (Gitlin 2003). In

Media Unlimited

, Gitlin notes the prevalence media formats designed for:

*

Relatively disposable feelings of fun and excitement.

*

Fast-rising, fast-fading emotional roller-coasters.

*

Frequently interrupted speech, talking fast and talking over.

*

Accelerated editing: jump cuts, split screens, loud music.

*

Encouragement for channel-surfing and divided attention.

He notes that serious political argument is too abstract and hypothetical for media environments designed to deliver immediate rewards; it is too annoyingly insistent on engaging contrary viewpoints and doing so at their strong points, not their weak points. While offering an alternative to straight news, fake news also reproduces some of its least helpful tendencies. The whole culture of 'improv' and

ad lib

, for instance, is uncongenial to truth-seeking. Even in his least satirical moments-the studio interviews-Steward pulls his critical punches, as do all the late night comedy hosts, wary of deterring prospective guests or alienating viewers. Even Colbert admits he can't be too 'prickly' because if he were really as aggressive as O'Reilly, his fans wouldn't like it. Note also that the live studio audience can be used to turn interviewed guests into vulnerable outsiders if the host plays up to the boos, jeers and guffaws of assembled fans.

Indeed there is a sense in which the fake news critique of mainstream journalism is already somewhat nostalgic, both in its quaint straw dog advocacy of convention news norms, and in its relentless attack on authoritarian news practices that actually went out of favour years ago, mainly as a result of the practice of American news consultancy at home and (as New Zealanders know to their cost) abroad. John Oliver decries the conservative inclinations of American journalism, calling it "supine, overly scared of causing offence, bowing to authority and generally lacking in the kind of 'upset the applecart' instinct" evident elsewhere (Usborne 2010). In the U.S context during the Bush-Cheney years, this complaint has self-evident merit, but it also partly reflects the predicament of a country on a war-footing and even then it's possibly a slight exaggeration. In any event, it's certainly not a charge that can be made against our own television news and current affairs which sometimes seem closer to

The Daily Show

itself, than to its ostensible targets. In a recent

Listener

column entitled "Send in the Clowns", Diana Wichtel characterised NZ television current affairs as the place 'where the hard news goes to die' recommending that TVNZ rename its three weekday infotainment shows:

Good Morning, Good God

and

Good Grief

.

Cognitive psychology:

Finally, there is experimental evidence that, far from increasing critical scrutiny of political messages, humour works more like propaganda than democratic deliberation. This is especially the case for cognitive processing of complex, double-edged forms of satire and parody. Humour subverts the norms of conventional communication because its meaning is usually not in what is

said

, but in what is

not

said. That is what makes it hard to process. Cognitive miser theory suggests that, when faced with high processing demands such as dual-task completion or when cognitive resources are scarce, we tend to fall back on pre-existing knowledge structures, such as stereotypes. Humour comprehension (getting the joke) requires integrative thought processes to make sense of competing scripts. The degree of complexity acts as a barrier to critical thinking rather than an encouragement for it.

Cognitive psychology further suggests that when we are in a positive mood our capacity for systematic processing of information is diminished and we are more likely to make judgments based on heuristics and existing knowledge structures. The mere anticipation of positive affect-which is characteristic of comedy reception-can reduce our processing resources. Combining these two insights, Young (2008) established experimentally that the political humour on late night talk shows performs a dual role in curtailing argument scrutiny: both limiting the our

ability

to engage in scrutiny, and reducing our

motivation

to do so. As soon as we identify a text as a form of play, we are apt to treat it as irrelevant to attitude formation and change. Thus even biting satire may not be particularly effective in encouraging critical thought; like standup comedy, it is better suited to reinforcing existing prejudices.

Conclusion

The glaring deficiencies of straight news certainly beg to be mocked, but such mockery should be recognised as being, in some important respects, a mirror of, rather than an alternative to, straight news and ranting extremism. These shows courageously address a problem our politics doesn't have. Anti-political cynicism, meta-journalism, and partisan advocacy journalism are hardly in short supply. Stewart's current mission is to ridicule Fox News and the Christian Right. He doesn't break original news stories. He works brilliantly with the advantages of hindsight provided by others. He didn't foresee the financial meltdown, for instance. He ferreted out the news clips that failed to predict it AFTER it had happened. There are indeed some real and useful elements of critique here, but they are generally not hard targets he's aiming at. He and his colleagues are often hilariously funny at the expense of people who obviously lack the resources to defend themselves. He's there to mock the other side, not to understand it. There are signs of metropolitan smugness here, and while Stewart does occasionally confront harder targets in longer and more expansive studio interviews, he does so in front of an audience looking for laughs.

As Rod Hart has noted: "Politics ... depends on more than mere attention. It depends on serious beliefs seriously pursued." If, on the basis of its positive contribution to democratic values and political education, I had to choose between 'fake' news as represented by

The Daily Show

and

The Colbert Report

, and popular television drama as represented by

The West Wing

, I know which one I'd choose. At least

The West Wing

holds out hope for a better world and for democratic institutions, whereas

The Daily Show

knows, not just that mainstream journalism is going to hell in a hand basket, but that almost everything else is equally doomed. The great Irish poet Louis MacNeice had it exactly right when he wrote 'The Satirist' way back in the 1940s.

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