Monday, March 2, 2015

Culture Corner: The Evolution of Fake News


"Did I die?"

That was the question Jon Stewart posed his studio audience the day after he announced that he would be stepping down as the host of The Daily Show. And no wonder. In less than twenty-fours hours political news websites offered essays and think pieces that varied in tone between lionizing to eulogistic. Like everything on the Internet, it was all a bit too much. Of course, within twenty-fours hours after the memorials stopped rolling in, the conversation pivoted to the subject of who would take over as host for Stewart's The Daily Show. We are a culture with one foot stuck in the mud of nostalgia and the other obstinately inching towards the new.

This isn't the first time The Daily Show has weathered a changing of the guard. Jon Stewart stepped into the role of Daily Show host back in 1999, after the inaugural host, Craig Kilborn accepted an offer to host a late night talk show on CBS. During the interceding decades, under Stewart's stewardship, The Daily Show has evolved from basic cable novelty into the most politically incisive and critical program in the media landscape. In essence, and despite Jon Stewart's oft repeated mantra that all he does is make jokes, The Daily Show morphed from a show that lampoons the news to a show that, more often than not, seems to most accurately report the news.

So, when we see the voluminous amounts of hand-wringing going on over who will be selected as Stewart's successor, there is good reason. Coupled with the loss of Stephen Colbert's brilliant, pitch perfect run as conservative talking head on The Colbert Report, the fake news landscape is becoming increasingly unrecognizable. Thanks to the precedent set by Jon Stewart, it is not enough to just be funny; the new host has to be equal parts Edward R. Murrow and Eddie Murphy.

Whomever the new host may be (although we know it will not be Jessica Williams), if the current batch of "fake news" shows are any indication, there are plenty of indications that the future is in good hands. Newcomers Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore are handily reinventing the format, lifting the "fake news" formats to ever greater heights.

Oliver's Last Week Tonight, which premiered last April, allowed John Oliver, a former correspondent for The Daily Show, to step out of his famous boss' shadow by focusing on world news and utilizing the week long break between episodes to deliver long-form journalistic pieces that have put even the stately 60 Minutes to shame. Many have pointed to Oliver's brilliant take down of proposed laws to end net neutrality as one of the main catalysts for the bill's defeat this past week.

Armed with detailed facts, analysis, and a puckish glee for disrupting the system, Oliver and his team of writers were able to drive an unprecedented deluge of traffic to the FCC website responsible for accumulating comments from Americans concerned with proposed changes to net neutrality laws. Recently, Oliver has called on viewers to overwhelm Ecuadorian President Raffael Correa's Twitter feed with insults and presented a mascot alternative to tobacco companies, free of charge, in the form of Jeff the Diseased Lung.


Back over on Comedy Central, The Colbert Report replacement, The Nightly Show, has similarly marked out its own unique and distinct territory. The Nightly Show host, Larry Wilmore, a longtime contributor to The Daily Show and creator of the brilliant early 2000's sitcom, The Bernie Mac Show, has long been a comedic force behind the scenes, but after only a month on the air, it remains a mystery as to why. As the only black late night television comedy host on the air, Wilmore's The Nightly Show often covers uncomfortable subjects that affect minority communities (the show was originally titled The Minority Report), as well as subjects dominating the headlines such as the anti-vaccination movement. 

While each episode opens with Wilmore making jokes about the news of the day, much in the vein of The Daily Show, it is the reaming three quarters of the program that have truly set The Nightly Show apart from the rest of the late night crowd, in which a panel of four guests (four guests, it should be noted, who are not primarily white men!)-discuss a hot button issue. In one particularly eye-opening episode, Wilmore and guests discussed the issue of low fatherhood participation rates within the black community, the guests of which were all-and this is going to sound crazy- black men who are fathers!



The secret charm of The Nightly Show is in Larry Wilmore's easy, avuncular style as a host. In the short amount of time the program has been on the air, Wilmore has tackled incredibly difficult subjects with an affable friendliness, lending conversations that could otherwise end up tense or defensive a breezy, good-natured air that cuts through the discomfort. 

While it will be sad to see Jon Stewart leave the fake news desk behind sometime in the near future, it is heartening to know that there are two programs on the air that have taken the torch of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and push the boundaries of such programs even further. As John Oliver continues to bleed the edges between activism and entertainment and Larry Wilmore continues to offer a voice to the types of people so rarely represented on television, viewers can rest assured that the future is in good hands. 

Justin Gray

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