Earlier this year, I wrote a post about "fake newscaster"/comedian Jon Stewart and his epic "Daily Show" takedown of bogus business reporting and misleading hype on the business news channel CNBC, and I wondered why it took someone like Stewart to report what the mainstream media seemed unable or unwilling to tackle. I said there were valuable lessons for traditional, so-called "serious" media in Stewart's brand of -- dare I say it -- journalism. I advised my newsroom colleagues:
Tear down this wall...of pretending that the media itself isn't a major player in American society, and isn't a factor in most big stories. Sure, there were greedy bankers and their pocketed politicians working in unintended tandem to take the Dow from 14,000 down to 6,600, but these popular TV pundits were there every step of the way, as "The Daily Show" revealed, and their contribution was consequential. Mainstream media, after all these years, has a hard time understanding that one of the major political forces in this country is mainstream media, something the audience knows all too well.
This week, Stewart is on the case again, with a scoop that the thousands of journalists working in traditional newsrooms missed. Granted, this time it's more of a quick "gotcha," than a detailed takedown like the CNBC piece was, but it was still a story well worth reporting. It involved some creative editing on the "Hannity" program on the Fox News Channel:
Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show,” presented excerpts from a segment of Mr. Hannity’s show in which he discussed the so-called tea party protests in Congress last Thursday with Representative Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota who had urged supporters to turn up at the Capitol to protest the health care bill.
Beyond questioning the crowd estimates cited by Mr. Hannity, Mr. Stewart demonstrated that the Fox News program had included several scenes of the crowd, one of which he conclusively proved had not been shot the day of the health care protest but at the much larger tea party protest in Washington last summer.
Sean Hannity apologized on the air tonight, claiming the error was "inadvertent." That's hard to believe. It's a significant story because Jon Stewart understood something that many high-ranking traditional media editors still, sadly, do not understand.
That this kind of thing matters.
For Fox News, which has stepped up its partisan cheerleading for the right wing since Barack Obama became president, size -- of anti-administration protests, that is -- does matter. And when they run misleading footage to make a conservative rally appear to be much, much better attended than it really was, that accomplishes several things. It fires up the right-wing base -- the people that GOP wants to get rowdy at town hall meetings or flood congressional phone lines. And the bogus report also pressures wavering lawmakers, especially those centrist Democrats looking for any excuse not to support health care reform. Using doctored footage to make a point is not news. It's propaganda, and in America that makes it a serious matter, indeed.
Not in most newsrooms. Most editors probably wouldn't say it exactly this way, but the truth is that we see ourselves as actors who don't want to tear down that imaginary "fourth wall" between ourselves and the audience, any more than they do on Broadway. But we're not Broadway; the media is itself a major player in the American body politic, often shaping outcomes by the way we frame important issues. One of the main reasons that political blogs became so prominent a few years back was a willingness to break stories about the media -- two early examples leaping to mind were the Dan Rather scandal (on the right) and the Jeff Gannon scandal (on the left) -- in a way that the traditional media itself didn't feel comfortable with.
And Jon Stewart and his outstanding team of "Daily Show" producers and writers not only "get" the importance of media manipulation and propaganda, but they can take it a step farther because they also have something that most bloggers do not --resources. Their access to large film libraries is what helps them to take down Fox, CNBC, and all the other media types (and politicians, too) when they say the polar opposite of what they were saying a year ago or even a month ago.
You know who else has those kinds of resources? Mainstream, big media newsrooms. But big media pathologically refuses to think of itself as a part of the national narrative, even as the millions of people who watch Jon Stewart or read your top political blogs know better. And until we in the old media can comprehend that, the new media will continue to leave us in the dust. So will the "fake" media.