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'Fake' News is a Bogus Feel-Good
Watching Jon Stewart and his ilk makes us laugh at government foibles, but it doesn't inspire us to activism
If Marshall McLuhan was right that "the medium is the message," in the case of wildly popular fake news, the message must be: Laugh your head off or you'll just end up crying your eyes out.
But what if a few angry and motivating tears are what we need? What if all this laughing is pacifying us - making us inert? I hate to say it - I love my Amy Poehler fix on "Saturday Night Live" as much as the next gal - but I fear therapeutic irony is rendering us politically impotent.
We are drawn to fake news for obvious reasons. Reading a witty Onion headline feels a lot better than another depressing, straight news story. Watching Jon Stewart's brilliantly timed shrug on Comedy Central beats Wolf Blitzer's barely perceptible personality any day.
Sometimes funny news feels more honest than the serious stuff, the ironic take closer to the truth than the supposedly "objective" one. And we all need a little relief.
But like comfort food consumed night after night in place of broccoli, we are gorging ourselves on what feels good instead of processing what feels so bad - and doing something about it.
These fake news juggernauts have such rich material because our government is so outlandishly corrupt. It is not their witty rendering of that material that we should be spending most of our time on, but the material itself. There is a role, a very necessary role, for humor and release in this depressing climate, but not as a complete replacement of our moral conscience or outraged action.
Satire has a long and proven history as a source of bona fide social change. But does the one-millionth joke about President George W. Bush's preschool perception of global geography really regain the trust of the international community?
The difference between a satire such as George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and "The Daily Show" is that the latter too often makes us comfortable, even happy, as opposed to the motivating and sometimes terrifying disequilibrium caused by that novel's satirizing totalitarianism.
Rebels distributed copies of "Animal Farm" to displaced Ukrainians right after World War II. The U.S. military discovered them and confiscated 1,500 copies that would later be handed over to the Russian authorities whom the Americans were, at least temporarily, trying to aid. The vicious and powerful humor contained within that small book sure scared the corrupt leaders of that time.
Clearly, the huge audience for sarcastic, sophisticated slapstick means an increase in public awareness of current events. This is an undeniable benefit. The National Annenberg Election Survey released in 2004 reported that "Daily Show" viewers knew more about election issues than people who regularly read newspapers or watched news.
But what are we doing with this knowledge, besides rehashing it at the water cooler the next morning? Contrary to Bill O'Reilly's jealous claim that "Daily Show" viewers are all "stoned slackers" and "dopey kids," Comedy Central reports that Stewart's viewers are 78 percent more likely than the average adult to have four or more years of college and 74 percent more likely to have a household income of $75,000 and an occupation of "professional, owner or manager."
It appears that those of us who respond to ironic or "fake" news are a well-educated, upper-middle-class bunch. We are the ones with the donation dollars that, pooled, can influence elections. We are the ones with the resources to do more to sue corrupt corporations or lobby Congress about issues such as health insurance and Social Security.
I'm not advocating boycotting sweet Jon Stewart or leaving The Onion to rot. I am reminding us not to let our laughter soothe our social conscience. In this side-splittingly hypocritical country, you are entitled to the pursuit of happiness - so go ahead, laugh until it hurts. But then get up from the couch and do something about it.