Fake news gets real

July 3, 2009

Colbert in Baghdad

global_post_logoThomas Mucha is the managing editor in charge of correspondents for GlobalPost, where this article first appeared. The views expressed are his own. —

It’s been a fascinating few weeks for global news — the real kind, of course — but also for the fake stuff.

I’m referring to “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” which sent correspondents and producers to locales where comedy shows don’t normally operate: Iran and Iraq. Along the way, these two Comedy Central commercial properties cooked up plenty of laughs. But they also produced some insightful — and certainly entertaining — coverage of these two complex and important global stories.

If Wolf Blitzer isn’t quaking in his beard, he should be.

These foreign forays produced powerful storytelling that illustrates how intelligence and humor, when mixed with a little ground truth, can add depth to very serious matters. It also demonstrates how fake news is, indisputably, a power on the global media stage. As an added bonus it was yet another funny and scathing attack on the pompous earnestness that typifies much of the mainstream media: You know you’re in trouble if you can be so brutally, and effortlessly, parodied.

Let’s start with Iran, where The Daily Show began with a simple idea, but then got much more than it was expecting.

To cover the country’s presidential election, Daily Show host and executive producer Jon Stewart sent “senior foreign correspondent” Jason Jones and producer Tim Greenberg to Tehran for two weeks (the trip followed Jones’ last Daily Show piece, “End Times,” which savaged the New York Times and went viral on the web).

Armed with official journalist visas granted by the Iranian government, Jones and Greenberg traveled to Tehran to tell jokes, but also to poke fun at American conceptions of Iran as “evil.”

In full parody mode, they titled their series “Behind the Veil: Minarets of Menace,” and produced an animated introduction filled with ominous Middle Eastern music, and featuring a preening and heroic Jones scampering through the desert. It’s the kind of cable TV flash-and-dash that Anderson Cooper would kill for.

Media-mocking humor is rampant throughout the reports: there’s Jones dressed as the stereotypical foreign correspondent — requisite facial stubble, khaki reporter’s vest and dark sunglasses, a Persian scarf draped roguishly around his neck.

There are bumbling interactions with the usual media suspects in Iran, including former foreign minister Ebrahim Yazdi, reformist cleric Mohammad Ali Abtahi, and Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, to whom Jones speaks Arabic instead of Farsi.

There are also street interviews with “seething” Iranians where Jones tries, and fails, to make them say how much they hate America. On the contrary: upon learning of Jones’ Daily Show connections, one smiling and stylish young man launches into a killer impersonation of Stewart’s staccato George W. Bush. “Heh, heh, heh …. heh heh heh.”

The coup de grace comes when Jones visits a Tehran home complete with a happy and clearly prosperous couple, two bubbly kids, flat-screen TVs and a Wii gaming console. “You have a beautiful cave,” Jones says, handing the young daughter a carton of Marlboro Reds to “earn their trust.”

Yes, the joke here is on the American audience.

Iranians are normal. They wear Dolce & Gabbana and Diesel, play video games and produce rap music. They know more about American geography and history than many Americans (one elderly man ticks off U.S. presidents in reverse order — “Bush, Clinton, Bush the father, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon” — juxtaposed, naturally, with an American in Times Square who can’t answer the question, “Name a country in the Middle East that begins with I-R-A-N.”) The satire is funny. It is also devastatingly effective.

But as the events in Tehran darkened (Jones and Greenberg left Iran before the serious violence began), the tone of the coverage changed.

A later piece points out that Yazdi, Abtahi and Bahari (“the Axis of Evil’s Axis of Evil”) had been detained by authorities. The reports filled with the grainy and visceral YouTube videos culled from Andrew Sullivan or Nico Pitney’s running coverage of the uprising. And the final report leaves the humor behind altogether:

“As I watch what’s happening there now, ” Jones says, “I know that somewhere in that sea of faces are the same people I had met, people who were gracious enough to take me into their homes, and schools, and coffee shops, people who indulged my asinine questions, people I hope will be safe and not be harmed or arrested for the simple act of wearing green and wanting a voice.”

Do the millions of Americans who watched this series (or, more likely, internet video clips of it) have a better understanding of what’s happening inside Iran? Do they now have a stronger sense of daily life there? Do they now know more about the things that unite, rather than divide, the people of these two countries? And did they have fun watching it?

Mission accomplished.

The Colbert Report, which earlier this month broadcast a week of shows from Saddam Hussein’s former Al Faw Palace in Baghdad, was equally impressive in its foreign coverage — not least for pulling off the technical feat of producing five 30 minute programs from a war zone 5,200 miles from its studios in Manhattan.

So why transplant an entire comedy show into difficult, even dangerous, conditions? To correct yet another shortcoming of the mainstream media, of course: Iraq had fallen off the news map. Here’s how Colbert explained it in the June 6 edition of Newsweek, for which he was the magazine’s guest editor:

“I hadn’t seen it in the media for a while, and when I don’t see something, I assume it’s vanished forever, like in that terrifying game peekaboo. We stopped seeing much coverage of the Iraq War back in September when the economy tanked, and I just figured the insurgents were wiped out because they were heavily invested in Lehman Brothers.”

Funny, of course. But Colbert’s Baghdad caper was also smart, courageous, and culturally relevant (the media-savvy President Obama doesn’t play along with a dangerous comedian like Colbert unless there’s a political upside).

Clips of the Baghdad shows quickly flooded YouTube, Hulu, Facebook, Twitter, as well as the mainstream media (The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Time, Newsweek and others covered it). And so, like Jones in Iran, Colbert’s mission was also accomplished.

No, this is not journalism. And neither Colbert nor his Daily Show counterparts make that claim.

But in an increasingly global media landscape where satire bleeds into analysis and where hope meets the brutality of a Basij baton, fake news is playing an increasingly important role — particularly on the internet, where hundreds of thousands of people download, watch and share these clips each day.

Love it or hate it, millions of people are paying attention to fake news across America and the world.

(Click here for the article on GlobalPost.)

(For previous columns by Thomas Mucha on GlobalPost, click here.)

(Above: U.S. General Ray Odierno, Commanding General, Multinational-Force-Iraq, prepares to give actor/comedian Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” a haircut during Colbert’s performance for U.S. military personnel at Al Faw Palace in Baghdad in this USO handout photo dated June 7, 2009.  REUTERS/Steve Manuel/USO/Handout)


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Fake news isn’t real news, though for many it’s the only news they watch. But then the real news isn’t really news anymore either: too many fluff stories and commercials. The result: Idiot voters.

Posted by Carl | Report as abusive

This is the REAL news: the other news shows are similar bs, where as these shows put everything into perspective.

Posted by Arnold J. Harriett | Report as abusive

I’m don’t think it’s accurate to call what these two shows do “fake news”. They take actual events and highlight aspects of it for humor and/or to point out the stupidity of the people involved. That’s not being fake nor is it falsifying the “newsworthy” event.

Posted by glf | Report as abusive

it’s sad but true, and it’s a reason why the MSM are having trouble with their audience. We, freelance journalists, who are often in touch with things “on the ground”, can hardly get a letter through to an editor in the big media. I have queried articles more often than ever in my life (I am over 50), but there is no way to break into the ivory tower. I pointed this out to a foreign editor of the NYT lately, but he has built his own ivory tower and is entrenched in it, imagining he has a grasp of Europe. The problem is — a problem that was accute back in the Cold War days already — the MSM like to see the world in a way that might make it newsworthy in their eyes. So it needs villains and heroes, victims and saviors. And the whole thing has to be compared negatively to the USA… Otherwise, no dice. Well, the Daily Show was already opposing the war in Iraq when it was not popular to do so.

All I can say is: kick out the old incestuous crowd, Jon Stewart and Colbert, you have deserved the mantle.

Posted by Talleyrand | Report as abusive

I like how Colbert handles interviews. If you listen his questions, the focus of the questions aren’t a whole lot funnier than the responses. It’s the way Colbert delivers the questions that make them funny. So he said why vote for somebody like Obama who promises equal treatment of homosexuals and then persistently delays and drags; at least the Republicans are honest and just say no, it’s evil, forget it. So that’s just plain funny. He never shows any lack of respect, either. Maybe subconsciously I had a really short hair-cut as a result of him getting his hair shaved. Man, now I’m regretting it. I hope my hair grows back. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I guess only military people look good with crew cuts.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

What better way to leave an imprint on someones mind than with satire? The media pays vane, self absorbed sycophants half a million dollars a year or more to read a teleprompter and wear silk suits. Surround them in a designer stage studio with dozens of flat panel monitors and people looking busy is the ultimate insult. The news is where it happens. I can sit in front of a computer and read for my self. I don’t need a broadcast editor telling me just what he wants me to hear and then how to digest it.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Colbert and Stewart are not “fake” news, even though they use the term themselves. They are news commentary.

The interesting thing is that they are commenting on the very same thing happening with the MSM. The most egregious MSM culprit is the foreign owned “Fox News”.

“Fox news”, is only a partially true title, properly, it should be called “Fox news commentary”.
“Some people say”, that there is embedded commentary in all of their presentations.

By making their commentary highlight the absurd, Colbert and Stewart get the audience to laugh, but it does not alter that are presenting valid news stories.

Posted by Lamont Cranston | Report as abusive

i sometimes feel that i only get the “real” news from these too shows. during he election, i really listened to both of them. i also instead of reading the “news”, went to factcheck and scopes for real information. for that i think i made a intelligent decision instead of listening to spin and hype.

stewart, often says, “don’t they know we are recording them?”, “it’s on tape”. how someone can still be giving out bad info, after youtube and factcheck etc. is beyond me.

so if you say “fake”, i say “real” with humor!

Posted by hobbes | Report as abusive

What is being referred to here as “Fake News” is basically the timely action of driving a wooden stake or other blunt instrument through the inert heart of neo-collectivist hairspray media cliches, of which there are literally too many examples in these post-embedded and correspondingly troubled times to enumerate here.

It’s dramatic when “Fake News” takes its show on the road abroad, but just as fundamental when only “Fake News” can call a spade a spade – viz. “fears of recession” being the MSM buzzword long after the ongoing Recession At Hand was glaringly apparent, last calendar year; or Jon Stewart’s candid confrontation of the guy with the bow-tie regarding tough questions for supposedly serious Presidential candidates and war-makers being entirely absent from the standard MSM intellectual and ethical diet plan.

In all my years spent in hard news with reputable American news directors and conscientious colleagues, I never once saw anything as collectively abysmal, slapdash, cowardly, sociopathically and ethically illiterate as 99% of today’s American mainstream news media.

Today’s so-called American news situation – a crisis in itself, rather – didn’t evolve from former traditions, it has been foisted on the public in spite or earlier wisdom.
In my estimation, the foisters have a lot more coming to them than satire. More of this in due course – after these messages…

In times such as these, if it takes “Fake News” to shed light on the Dark Side of establishment shenanigans which are driving the human species to extinction, then by golly it’s Fake News for me, every time.

Well, almost.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

I am at loss to understand how The Daily Show is considered ‘fake’, while Fox News and MSNBC is considered ‘real’.
It is also completely incorrect to say that The Daily Show is only satire. Many of the interviews that John Stewart has are insightful and tough, in a way that no other news programs dare to be.
Further to this, daring to play a video clip of a politician saying something contradictory to what they are currently saying is brilliant and damning, and not something I have ever seen a ‘real’ news show engage in. They merely report ‘the facts’, without holding anyone’s feet to the fire.
Watching Jim Cramer squirm while being hammered mercilessly with his own words was deserving of an Emmy. I guess that the only hope left to those who claim to have ‘journalistic integrity’ is to label these shows as being ‘fake’ and hope that their viewers won’t leave any quicker than they already are.

Posted by James Perly | Report as abusive

What’s surprising is that these ‘fake news’ shows are doing a better job of asking the questions we should be asking than the commercial news. We need much much more of these ‘fake news’ shows!

Posted by James Durning | Report as abusive

As many comments have emphasized, firstly it is wrong to assume the “real” news is principled news, and secondly it is wrong to assume the so-called “fake” news can’t be more principled than the “real” news. Though I wouldn’t vouch for the Daily Show and such as real journalistic ventures it is often true that they are more daring in their critique of current events, though it is all taken away by the comedy label. The “real” news are cowards, impressionists, propagandists and hypocrites in the serviced of imperialism and the corporations.

I get the facts from the news
I get the story from careful independent thinking and sites which do the same thing.

Its no surprise though, that people want some honest analysis so badly that they are willing to take the light teasing of the powers that be by the Stewarts and Colberts.

Posted by Roy Fairbank | Report as abusive