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Not the 11 O’clock News: How the Late-Night Comedy Shows Are Deepening the Divide between Commentary and Traditional News
July 6, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

Two lists. First is a list of the most recent Emmy winners for news and documentary. Next is a list of this month’s Television Critics Association (TCA) nominees for news and information.

First, the Emmy winners: PBS NewsHour, for best investigative journalism in a regularly scheduled newscast. Frontline, also from PBS, for outstanding coverage of a breaking news story in a newsmagazine, for “The Battle of Ukraine.” CBS’s 60 Minutes, for outstanding feature story in a newsmagazine, for “The Shooting at Chardon High.” And Frontline again, for outstanding investigative journalism in a newsmagazine, for “Hunting Boko Haram.”

Next, the TCA nominees: CBS Sunday Morning. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (left), from TBS. Ken Burns’ PBS biography Jackie Robinson. HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (top) and Real Time with Bill Maher. And finally, from CNN, W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America (below, left).

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to connect the two. Bee has also been nominated for the critics’ award for individual achievement in comedy, for example.

While Frontline, 60 Minutes and PBS NewsHour are in the business of gathering the news — arguably a much tougher and certainly more dangerous job — Bee, Maher, Oliver and, to a lesser extent Bell, are in the business of commentary or reacting to news. One has to do with the news pages; the other has to do with the op-ed pages. Journalists have died trying to get the story; those who comment from the safety of an air-conditioned studio after the fact have less to worry about. Angry tweets, perhaps?

And yet, in an age of information overload and media clutter, perspective — the kind of perspective provided by Bee, Maher, and Oliver on a nightly or weekly basis — has never been more important, especially during what looks to be the most divisive presidential election campaign in recent memory.

The sobering truth about news and information today is that, with the majority of voters hunkered down in their various hard-wired political positions, ignorance of what’s really going on in the world could have profound implications. Hard news and sober, clear-eyed analysis have never been more needed.

And yet, as evidenced by those two lists, the business of gathering and reporting the news is itself undergoing an identity crisis, even as, in election after election, on issue after issue, voters are split 51 percent to 49 percent. With people hardwired into their positions on both the left and right, there is little room for consensus. This is not a time for the undecided.

What defines news and information? And how best does TV reflect what is going on in the world?

In a year when so many journalists have died while simply trying to tell the story, the question has never been more urgent.

Some truths are self-evident. More young people get their news, to the extent they follow the news at all, from late-night comedy programs than they do the traditional nightly newscasts.

No news flash there. The tide started to turn long before Jon Stewart lampooned the day’s events on his nightly Daily Show. Long before Stewart introduced his audience to "special correspondents" like Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee, Not the 9 O’Clock News was ridiculing politicians and the traditional news media on BBC2 in the UK, while in Canada This Hour Has 22 Minutes has been a weekly staple on public broadcaster CBC since 1993, when it was calculatingly launched during Canada’s 35th general election for prime minister.

The difference is that in the early 1980s and throughout the ‘90s, the vast majority of viewers relied on the nightly network newscasts and newsmagazines to inform them about the issues.

In the new information age, with its myriad choices, viewers — and by extension voters — are more inclined to turn to those news sources that validate their personal opinions. What-you-need-to-know is no longer important. It’s what-you-want-to-hear that counts.

This is happening in a world where elections in western democracies like Canada, Denmark, Italy, Greece and, right now, as you read this, the UK, Austria, Spain and Australia are being decided by the finest of margins. To most thinking voters, the U.S. polls are much closer than they should be — that is, if people were making up their minds based on an informed knowledge of the issues, and where the candidates stand on those issues.

It’s news’ job to examine the issues and put them in focus. In a culture where opinion matters more than the facts, that puts television in a tough spot.

The late 60 Minutes producer and news veteran Don Hewitt once said the worst thing that happened to TV news was the incursion of the profit motive, by way of commercial advertising.

He warned that commercial advertising would create an economic model where ratings counted more than telling stories that need to be told. TV journalism, Hewitt warned, would no longer speak truth to power or be a voice for the voiceless. It would instead be a ratings grabber, designed to draw ever-larger audiences, sell more soap and keep advertisers happy.

Network executives — the people who run the networks — argue that news is a business, like anything else, and must make money to keep the lights on. The nightly news is not a charity, they argue.

It wasn’t meant to be this way.

Those who know television history know that, in the beginning, broadcasting companies were granted access to the public airwaves provided they met certain obligations to that same public. News wasn’t just an obligation — it was a public trust.

In TV’s early days, hard-nosed newshounds like Edward R. Murrow blazed the trail with weekly news programs like See It Now. A 1954 See It Now segment, “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy,” (left) played a key role in McCarthy’s eventual political downfall.

It’s hard to imagine any news broadcast — or late-night comedy show for that matter — having the same effect today. In his most recent Last Week Tonight, John Oliver gleefully took on doping at the Olympics, with the Rio Games now just weeks away. For Oliver’s legion of admirers on HBO, the late-night comedian may have looked as if he had broken an important news story. Those who follow the news more closely, though, would have noticed that much of Oliver’s supporting video was from 60 Minutes’ exposé of Russian doping at the Sochi Olympics, as reported by 60 Minutes correspondent Armen Keteyian in May. (Keteyian and 60 Minutes got little credit in the Last Week Tonight segment, by the way; it was simply set-up for Oliver’s comedy punchlines and a video sight gag.)

The late-night comedy circuit is an increasingly crowded field that now includes Oliver, Bee, Maher, Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore.

Their influence is limited, though: Last Week Tonight is not going to sway any undecided voters, let alone convert unbelievers, just as Bill Maher’s Real Time isn’t likely to make Donald Trump supporters suddenly switch their vote to Bernie Sanders.

That’s in part because Trump supporters are unlikely to be watching Real Time or Last Week Tonight in the first place. They’re more likely to be taking their TV cues from equally credible news sources like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, just as Democratically minded viewers are more likely to take their news cues from Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

It’s a mess. And the fewer viewers who get their news from PBS NewsHour, 60 Minutes or Frontline — or CBS Sunday Morning, for that matter — the more likely there will be a shock result in a presidential election.

There are times when TV is more important to the democracy than who died last night on Game of Thrones, or who JoJo Fletcher will ultimately choose on The Bachelorette

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When discussing Murrow and McCarthy,there was also a comic pulling the pants down(and eventually placing a brown paper bag over the antagonist's head) of McCarthy. Comic as in newspaper funny pages,alongside,Blondie,Charlie Brown and Mark Trail. In 1953,Walt Kelly's Pogo had a daily dose of McCarthy,drawn as a wildcat named Simple J. Malarkey(if you don't know what "malarkey" means,ask Joe Biden). Rhode Island's Providence Bulletin newspaper gave an ultimatum to Kelly not to draw Malarkey again. Kelly had a paper bag put over his head while vile,bluff and stupid still spewed from the voice inside.
Speaking of the power of the printed press to dive into the pool,yesterday Garry Trudeau finally put all of his Donald Trump strips from Doonesbury into book form(and Kindle for you youngins') Trudeau recognized the phoniness and bad taste of Trump back in 1987. "Yuge!"-29 years of calling out Trump,including Trump's Presidential aspirations years ago. Old school media getting it done.
Jul 6, 2016   |  Reply
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