The Fact Is, the Joke Is the News - Broadcasting & Cable

The Fact Is, the Joke Is the News

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I
was out and about last week, schmoozing about
election coverage, when someone asked if the line had blurred between TV news and entertainment.

My reply: What
line?

It has been a topsy-turvy political universe for years, with candidates trying everything to humanize themselves, like Richard Nixon in a 1968 cameo ("Sock it to me") on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
and Bill (Sax Man) Clinton jamming for Arsenio in 1992.

A public thirst has been created. We want the political conventions, the candidate debates and the candidates themselves to be entertaining. So Dr. Phil welcomes John Kerry, and humorist Jon Stewart receives Kerry and other political types galore (John Edwards earlier announced his run for the presidency on Stewart's Daily Show). The road to the White House at some point runs through Leno
and Letterman.

Now look, I've been on the beat long enough to realize that it's no headline when news biz and show biz nuzzle up and lock lips on camera as cozily as lovers on a one-night stand. In recent years, that includes slipping music into newscasts—an incursion journalists once regarded as a felony offense—as a means of twisting emotions and shaping opinions.

Don't forget, also, the thunderous production and big- marquee titles that 24-hour news networks attach to high-profile stories as if they were blockbuster theatrical movies.

Even more common is the venerable, widespread practice of cross-promotion, as on The Early Show,
a production of CBS News, which each Friday devotes a lengthy segment to "covering" the previous night's Survivor
episode on the network, as if who got bumped off was an actual news story. As a bonus, The Early Show
folds itself into this fantasy from a special set outfitted to resemble Survivor.

Is it any wonder that news andentertainment
are as inseparable in the public mind as sex and violence?

Here's the difference today, though. In earlier times, we watched entertainment values hemorrhage into newscasts, as a strategy to attract and hold viewers. These days, it's increasingly the reverse: News values—that is, the pretense of them—are now seeping into entertainment shows.

In other words: Lights, cameras, viewer confusion.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21% of Americans ages 21-29 used Comedy Central's Daily Show
and NBC's Saturday Night Live
as primary sources for election news, almost equaling the survey's percentage watching nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC for that purpose.

Although Saturday Night Live
still has its moments and The Daily Show
is always a hoot, their influence as news sources is very troubling.

Because they're not
news.

News and entertainment were already conjoined at the funny bone when I began covering them in 1970, two years after WLS introduced to Chicago viewers the "happy- talk" news theater of faux camaraderie, elbow-jabbing buffoonery and ho, ho, ho
that swiftly bled across the U.S. There was a time when ABC's Eyewitness News
in Los Angeles featured a weathercaster who hammed it up by threading his forecast with jokes like a standup comic, as other news-set zanies guffawed in the background. He probably would have played a kazoo if it would have attracted more viewers.

That giddiness survives to some extent even now, and I'm referring not only to the local-news kazoos of "team coverage." It happens on national networks, too. Check out, for example, the tiresome burlesque of those bicoastal segues linking Larry King Live
to Newsnight With Aaron Brown
on CNN. First comes L.A.-based King's grinning intro of "my man in New York," sort of like David Letterman greeting Paul Shaffer. Then the vamping Brown, on split screen, responds with chuckles and aw-shucks chagrin to this scripted spontaneity—before turning to the latest horror in Iraq.

At least this is a program that presents straight news, however unevenly, whereas Saturday Night Live
and The Daily Show
are spoofs and Stewart a comedian who stresses often, as he did a couple of weeks ago on 60 Minutes, that his series does "fake news."

That's right, fake.
Is it possible that 21% of twentysomethings don't know the difference or are so accustomed to theater in news that they can't distinguish actual newscasts from entertainment shows that impersonate newscasts for yucks? Or perhaps, like many of us, they are bombarded by so much media—from print, TV and radio to the Internet—that separating one source (news) from another (entertainment) becomes a challenge.

Nourishing this ambiguity, too, is politics-minded Real Time With Bill Maher, HBO's weekly comedy chat-up whose laugh agenda often gives way to substance.

The guests hashing over big issues on Maher's show, however wittily, are often the same ones making the rounds of news chat shows, as are most of the one-on-one interviewees he questions, at times with as much strait-laced cogency as one finds on conventional news programs.

That media-prowling political animal Pat Buchanan is one who straddles the genres. On separate nights a while ago, he dissected the election campaign on MSNBC, then covered similar ground on HBO with comedian Maher, suggesting a strategy for Kerry to draw even in the polls with Bush that turned out to be exactly what happened.

So I repeat: What
line?

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