Page: Making fun of the news

Clarence Page

‘Did I die?” That’s how “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart opened his program on the evening after he announced that he was walking away from it after 16 years.

The “weird” coverage of his departure felt like reading his own obituary.

Enjoy it, Jon. People don’t really appreciate you until they lose you.

It’s no simple matter for those of us who try to make sense out of the news to assess the impact of Stewart’s departure on the news that provided him and his show with rich wellsprings of material.

As Stewart departs at the top of his game and NBC anchor Brian Williams at the bottom, “fake news” never looked so good.

“Fake news” is Stewart’s own self-deprecating description of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

It is more accurately a talk-and-interview show that offers a smartly sarcastic comedic take on real news, newsmakers and news media, including itself.

I started paying attention to Stewart’s show back in 2000 when my son, then in junior high school, told me that his friends were watching it. Any program that attracted teenagers to the news, I figured, was a show that I had to watch.

The problem for TV news is that the medium of television is fundamentally geared to entertainment — “Chewing gum for the eyes,” one radio era humorist put it — and the news must always battle against the drive to overdo the show biz.

That appears to be the quandary into which “NBC Nightly News” host Williams fell, leading to his six-month suspension without pay just before Stewart coincidentally announced his retirement.

Williams was punished for misrepresenting an episode that happened to him in Iraq during his coverage of the 2003 invasion. Although he reported it accurately at first, the truth apparently was not entertaining enough for him in his retellings, so over time he embellished the story.

Fake news may cost him his TV news career.

Stewart got around that quandary by coming at the news from the other side, as an entertainer with no obligation to be accurate, as long as he got laughs.

To his credit, Stewart took his role as a political satirist seriously. He walked that thin line between news and entertainment and respected the intelligence of his audience — too much, some cynics might say — to be able to tell the difference.

By 2009, after Walter Cronkite died a Time magazine poll asked who is America’s “most trusted newscaster,” an unofficial title that long belonged to Cronkite.

Stewart received more votes than Williams and the other regular network anchors, who, in fairness, probably split the vote between them.

Why is “fake news” more “trusted” than real news? Freed to show as much sarcasm or delight as he wishes, Stewart conveys a sense of straight talk that connects with viewers.

Whether you agree with him or not, you know where he stands.

Or as the late comic George Burns used to say, the secret to success in life is “sincerity — fake that and you’ve got it made.”

Stewart didn’t just mock the newsmakers and newscasters. He openly advocated for better news coverage and for more accountability from newsmakers, especially politicians.

For example, a classic “Daily Show” technique of twinning video of a politician’s current positions with what he or she said in the past has been popping up with greater frequency on conventional newscasts, it seems. If so, we may have “The Daily Show” to thank for it.

We may never see any newscaster win the respect we used to associate with Cronkite.

Those were different times. In an era in which every major institution has let us down beneath the relentless scrutiny of growing media coverage, real subjectivity may sound more credible than the faked objectivity of conventional newscasts.

Instead, it may be the “fake news” that strikes us as more believable, simply because its cynical view seems so closely to match our own.

Still, I don’t expect conventional news to disappear.

News consumers still want fairness and balance.

But we may be a lot less willing these days to believe fairness and balance when we hear it. In those instances we may be more willing to appreciate those who help us to make sense of the news by making fun of it.

Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.