It’s been a fascinating few weeks for global news — the real kind, of course — but also for the fake stuff.
I’m referring to "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," which sent correspondents and producers to locales where comedy shows don't normally operate: Iran and Iraq. Along the way, these two Comedy Central commercial properties cooked up plenty of laughs. But they also produced some insightful — and certainly entertaining — coverage of these two complex and important global stories.
If Wolf Blitzer isn’t quaking in his beard, he should be.
These foreign forays produced powerful storytelling that illustrates how intelligence and humor, when mixed with a little ground truth, can add depth to very serious matters. It also demonstrates how fake news is, indisputably, a power on the global media stage. As an added bonus it was yet another funny and scathing attack on the pompous earnestness that typifies much of the mainstream media: You know you're in trouble if you can be so brutally, and effortlessly, parodied.
Let's start with Iran, where The Daily Show began with a simple idea, but then got much more than it was expecting.
To cover the country's presidential election, Daily Show host and executive producer Jon Stewart sent “senior foreign correspondent” Jason Jones and producer Tim Greenberg to Tehran for two weeks (the trip followed Jones' last Daily Show piece, "End Times," which savaged the New York Times and went viral on the web).
Armed with official journalist visas granted by the Iranian government, Jones and Greenberg traveled to Tehran to tell jokes, but also to poke fun at American conceptions of Iran as "evil."
In full parody mode, they titled their series “Behind the Veil: Minarets of Menace,” and produced an animated introduction filled with ominous Middle Eastern music, and featuring a preening and heroic Jones scampering through the desert. It's the kind of cable TV flash-and-dash that Anderson Cooper would kill for.
Media-mocking humor is rampant throughout the reports: there's Jones dressed as the stereotypical foreign correspondent — requisite facial stubble, khaki reporter's vest and dark sunglasses, a Persian scarf draped roguishly around his neck.
There are bumbling interactions with the usual media suspects in Iran, including former foreign minister Ebrahim Yazdi, reformist cleric Mohammad Ali Abtahi, and Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, to whom Jones speaks Arabic instead of Farsi.
There are also street interviews with "seething" Iranians where Jones tries, and fails, to make them say how much they hate America. On the contrary: upon learning of Jones' Daily Show connections, one smiling and stylish young man launches into a killer impersonation of Stewart's staccato George W. Bush. "Heh, heh, heh .... heh heh heh."
The coup de grace comes when Jones visits a Tehran home complete with a happy and clearly prosperous couple, two bubbly kids, flat-screen TVs and a Wii gaming console. "You have a beautiful cave," Jones says, handing the young daughter a carton of Marlboro Reds to "earn their trust."
Yes, the joke here is on the American audience.
Iranians are normal. They wear Dolce & Gabbana and Diesel, play video games and produce rap music. They know more about American geography and history than many Americans (one elderly man ticks off U.S. presidents in reverse order — "Bush, Clinton, Bush the father, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon" — juxtaposed, naturally, with an American in Times Square who can't answer the question, "Name a country in the Middle East that begins with I-R-A-N.") The satire is funny. It is also devastatingly effective.
But as the events in Tehran darkened (Jones and Greenberg left Iran before the serious violence began), the tone of the coverage changed.
A later piece points out that Yazdi, Abtahi and Bahari ("the Axis of Evil's Axis of Evil") had been detained by authorities. The reports filled with the grainy and visceral YouTube videos culled from Andrew Sullivan or Nico Pitney's running coverage of the uprising. And the final report leaves the humor behind altogether:
“As I watch what’s happening there now, " Jones says, "I know that somewhere in that sea of faces are the same people I had met, people who were gracious enough to take me into their homes, and schools, and coffee shops, people who indulged my asinine questions, people I hope will be safe and not be harmed or arrested for the simple act of wearing green and wanting a voice.”
Do the millions of Americans who watched this series (or, more likely, internet video clips of it) have a better understanding of what's happening inside Iran? Do they now have a stronger sense of daily life there? Do they now know more about the things that unite, rather than divide, the people of these two countries? And did they have fun watching it?
The Colbert Report, which earlier this month broadcast a week of shows from Saddam Hussein’s former Al Faw Palace in Baghdad, was equally impressive in its foreign coverage — not least for pulling off the technical feat of producing five 30 minute programs from a war zone 5,200 miles from its studios in Manhattan.
(For a fascinating take about how they did it, including landing interviews with President Obama and U.S. Commanding General in Iraq Ray Odierno, check out this Terry Gross interview with The Colbert Report's executive producer and head writer Allison Silverman).
So why transplant an entire comedy show into difficult, even dangerous, conditions? To correct yet another shortcoming of the mainstream media, of course: Iraq had fallen off the news map. Here's how Colbert explained it in the June 6 edition of Newsweek, for which he was the magazine's guest editor:
“I hadn’t seen it in the media for a while, and when I don’t see something, I assume it’s vanished forever, like in that terrifying game peekaboo. We stopped seeing much coverage of the Iraq War back in September when the economy tanked, and I just figured the insurgents were wiped out because they were heavily invested in Lehman Brothers.”
Funny, of course. But Colbert's Baghdad caper was also smart, courageous, and culturally relevant (the media-savvy President Obama doesn't play along with a dangerous comedian like Colbert unless there's a political upside).
Clips of the Baghdad shows quickly flooded YouTube, Hulu, Facebook, Twitter, as well as the mainstream media (The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Time, Newsweek and others covered it). And so, like Jones in Iran, Colbert's mission was also accomplished.
No, this is not journalism. And neither Colbert nor his Daily Show counterparts make that claim.
But in an increasingly global media landscape where satire bleeds into analysis and where hope meets the brutality of a Basij baton, fake news is playing an increasingly important role — particularly on the internet, where hundreds of thousands of people download, watch and share these clips each day.
Love it or hate it, millions of people are paying attention to fake news across America and the world.
Recent columns by Thomas Mucha:
The globalization of social media
The Great Recession of 2009
Reflections on the big, sick dog
A World of Trouble, the sequel