A great man once said that truthiness is not based on mere facts. No, instead truthiness is what you feel to be true. That great man was Stephen T. Colbert (pronounced Colbear but definitely not French), a late night pundit who seemed to personify the American news media‘s obsession with opinion. His ultra-right-wing views were familiar to anyone who had the misfortune to come across Fox News while zapping through the myriad of channels on American TV but with one crucial difference – Stephen T. Colbert wasn’t real. His “Colbear Repore” was a comedy show that was so close to the real thing, I heard people ask ‘…but it’s a joke, right?’. Colbert even made it to the White House Press dinner and to this day I’m not sure if then President George ‘dubya’ Bush got it.
The Colbert character was retired just before Christmas. His creator, actual Stephen Colbert, will be moving on to present the legendary Late Show in September. Colbert/Colbear got his break on another ‘comedy’ news show, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and last week in another blow to funny that’s funny, Jon Stewart announced he was leaving that show to in his own words enjoy dinner on a school night with his family, ‘I hear… they’re lovely people’. Although the Daily Show also used fake ridiculous characters to satirize the real ridiculous characters of American news and politics, Stewart, as the anchorman, remained apart. His role was to point out the ridiculous, turn his acerbic wit on lawmakers to hockey-moms and shine a comedic light on hypocrisy. The golden age of the Daily Show was during the eight years of George W. Bush‘s administration. The show went from cult late night viewing for college kids to the essential news show for disillusioned Democrats, including the man who would become the next president. Partly it was because the show is simply funny but more than that, the Daily Show turned out to be a better source of news than a lot of real news on American TV. In my dissertation on the subject, I found studies suggesting the Daily Show, through it’s lens of satire, was more true to journalistic values, more informative & more willing to fact check than actual news. Coupled with this was Stewart‘s every man common sense of right and wrong. His delivery may have been that of a stand-up comic but his morals always shone through. I would maintain that he is the best political interviewer I have ever seen, wielding a perfected Socratic technique of giving his opinion strongly and articulately while somehow remaining warm and inviting. This often resulted in his guests, particularly those from the right-wing, shooting themselves in the foot, disarmed by video evidence and Stewart’s home-truths. The fact is that Stewart, as the Daily Show anchor, pointed out ‘truthiness’ in media and politics and pulled it into the light of what we like to call ‘fact’ (or at the very least intelligent, well informed opinion) and made it funny! Of course, Stewart always had that advantage – he isn’t a newsman. He is a comedian and never pretended to be anything else. Ironically, it was precisely this that made him credible,
In a strangely negative version of Stewart’s fake/real credibility, last week also saw problems for actual news anchorman NBC’s Brian Williams and his ‘truthiness’. Williams has been suspended without pay for six months because an anecdote he told several times turned out to have become… let’s say ’embellished’ over the years. Now that might seem a little harsh – haven’t we all told stories where we got the girl or caught the ball? Maybe, but those stories don’t generally involve helicopters, rocket propelled grenades and the Iraq War. In 2003, Williams, reporting from Iraq, said he’d been on a US army helicopter when the one in front was hit by an RPG. While appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2013, Williams said the RPG had hit his helicopter and in January this year, that version made it to NBC Nightly News. ‘Misremembering’ on a talk show? Bad. Telling that same ‘mis-remembrance’ on the most watched news bulletin in America? Worse, much worse, especially when some of the vets you were in the helicopter with are watching too and don’t quite remember it the same way. Whether Williams’ memory is on the blink or he blatantly lied to make himself the hero, the fact is that his entire journalistic career is now under scrutiny, including the Peabody winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The real dissapointment here is that Williams was one of the ‘good’ guys. Taking over the anchorship from the legendary Tom Brokaw, Williams has been compared to Edward R. Murrow and counts Walter Cronkite as a fan. If it had been Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity nobody would have batted an eye, mostly because they frequently stretch the truth as pointed out nightly by the Daily Show. But leaving Fox News’ beautifully blatent partisanship behind, NBC Nightly News is not an opinion show pretending to be the news or a comedy show pretending to be the news, it is the news, the fourth estate, the legacy of Woodward and Bernstein, an essential element in democracy, what Jefferson described as the only toxin of the nation. The fact that toxin has been sullied by journalists and politicians alike particularly over the Iraq War (among other things) is all the more reason America needs to rekindle it’s trust in its journalists and if those who, like Williams, seemed to retain that sense of integrity prove to lose it in their own self-importance, perhaps it is only through comedy that checking in on the truth might actually happen. Hopefully, even after Jon Stewart’s departure, the Daily Show will continue to do that (it’s certainly got a lot talented people to take over). In a further plot twist, there are rumours that NBC might nab Stewart to take over as the Nightly News anchor. The comedian becomes the newsman and the newsman becomes a joke? Welcome to the wacky world of truthiness.
In case you’ve never seen the Daily Show, here’s a good round up of Jon Stewart at his best (if you don’t mind the annoying MTV style presenter, sorry!)…
& here’s the whole of the 9/11 piece (be sure to have some tissues for this).