Cable news outlets got the U.S. Supreme Court health care decision embarrassingly wrong — but cable entertainment programs, in criticizing their rush to judgment, got it spectacularly right. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Aaron Sorkin, take your bows…
You didn’t have to be watching Fox News, Fox Business Network or CNN Thursday morning to see how badly those news organizations screwed up due to their competitive frenzy in reporting the latest ruling from the land’s highest court. All you had to do was watch two Comedy Central shows that same night, and marvel at their utterly eviscerating, totally appropriate recaps and reactions.
On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the host began with footage from Fox News, with its headline declaring: SUPREME COURT FINDS HEALTH CARE INDIVIDUAL MANDATE UNCONSTITUTIONAL. Reporters all were handed bound copies of the same lengthy ruling shortly after 10 a.m. ET, and wasted no time in summarizing what they thought was the court’s decision.
But they should have.
Stewart reported the result, at first, as soberly and succinctly as though he were the country’s foremost news media critic — which, let’s be honest, he is.
“In a photo finish with Fox News,” Stewart says, “CNN, by eight seconds, was the very first organization to report the unconstitutionality of Obama’s signature heath care act.” The action cuts to CNN.
“Wow! That’s a dramatic moment!” says CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer at 10:07 a.m. ET, as his network displays a SUPREME CT. KILLS INDIVIDUAL MANDATE headline.
“Yes! Yes!” concurs Stewart, switching to heavy sarcasm as his Daily Show recap continues. “A moment of great drama. And, like many of our greatest dramas, a work of complete fiction.”
Two minutes later, Stewart points out, Fox News corrects its mistake by reading past the first page of the ruling — but not CNN, which kept going with what the Daily Show anchor summarized as seven minutes of “hyperventilation.”
As the recap continues, CNN’s Blitzer is shown at 10:13 a.m. reporting, “We’re getting widely different assessments of what the United States Supreme Court has decided…”
“Yes, widely different,” Stewart returns to interrupt, and to deliver his death blow.
“There’s what you’ve been saying. And then there’s — what happened.
“No sympathy, CNN!”
When The Daily Show ended that night and The Colbert Report began, host Stephen Colbert was just as ruthless. After showing a Fox Business Network anchor delivering his breaking news report in hyper-dramatic, telegram-like fashion (“The individual mandate has been struck down: it — has — been — struck — down!”), Colbert turned to a picture of the anchor to yell a response in similarly clipped, even louder tones.
“No — it — has — not!” Colbert screamed to the anchor’s superimposed photo. “You — suck — at — news!”
In summary, Colbert added sarcastically, “Evidently, folks, and I did not know this, there’s more to a Supreme Court ruling than just the first page.”
But Colbert wasn’t through yet. Later in the show, by sheer coincidence, his guest was Aaron Sorkin, whose new HBO series, The Newsroom, dramatizes the pressures and problems of cable TV news, and presents a group of journalists who decide to go against the tide and be more responsible and intelligent and less dependent on ratings and what the competition is doing.
Speaking of the differences between the “Golden Age” TV journalism era of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and the 24-hour cable news cycles of today, Sorkin told Colbert, “The speed at which we report right now is the reason why two networks reported today that the health care law was stuck down.”
To which Colbert, referring to the CNN and Fox News on-air egregious mistakes, replied with a smile, “I think we’ll all remember where we were when we heard that bullshit.”
One aspect of Sorkin’s The Newsroom (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) that’s increasingly intriguing, in the next few episodes, is how he uses actual news footage from actual cable network coverage as dramatic elements to propel plots or play against what people in his fictional newsroom are doing.
The Newsroom is set in the recent past (the pilot episode opened in 2010), which allows Sorkin to pick and choose his targets comfortably, like my favorite South Park superhero character, Captain Hindsight. His gift is to see clearly, in retrospect, what should have been done — as when he descends upon the Gulf Coast to assess the BP oil spill.
“Hmm. All right,” Captain Hindsight tells citizens and reporters gathered on the Louisiana shore, assessing the situation at super-speed.
“You see where that rig is drilling? It’s in too deep of water. They shouldn’t have drilled in that deep a water, because now they can’t get machines deep enough to fix the spill.”
“Yes, yes!” says the crowd. And after a few more such observations, Captain Hindsight says, “My work here is done. I’m off to find others in need!” and flies off.
Sorkin’s characters, in The Newsroom, have the same amazing gift — to instantly think faster, and make more proper judgment calls, than others around them. But where Sorkin is more than just a scriptwriting Captain Hindsight is that he manages to be prescient at the same time.
In Episode 4, which HBO will televise July 15, Sorkin uses an actual news event from last year to dramatize the very real pressures and stupid moves that just embarrassed CNN and Fox News so publicly with the Supreme Court decision. It has to do with a public figure in critical condition, whom one news organization, then another and another, quickly declares as dead. But in the episode’s climax, the folks at Sorkin’s fictional News Night program refuse to follow suit, even when a corporate executive descends angrily upon the set to scream at the anchorman (played by Jeff Daniels), “Every second you’re not current, a thousand people are changing the channel to the guy who is. That’s the business you’re in.”
Sorkin wrote those words, and that episode, long ago, yet it hits the nail on the head, with crushing force, about the very real issue just laid bare on CNN and Fox News and ridiculed by Colbert and Stewart.
Maybe Aaron Sorkin is the secret identity of another clear-seeing superhero: Captain Foresight.
And if he needs a sidekick, I’d like to apply. After all, without any effort whatsoever, I can see the fumbling CNN and Fox News footage used in a great episode of The Newsroom in Season 2.
And yes, I envision a Season 2. The way the news is going, The Newsroom is too valuable a show to lose.
We want Captain Foresight on that wall. We need Captain Foresight on that wall…
Because we think it's TV Worth Watching, we're providing links to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart's Supreme Court decision coverage from June 28, 2012; Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report episode of the same day, which opens with Colbert’s Supreme Court coverage and concludes with an entertaining interview with Sorkin; and a clip of Captain Hindsight from South Park.