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Fake news gets real

"The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" target Iran, Iraq, and the rest of the world.

U.S. Gen. Ray Odierno prepares to give Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" a haircut during Colbert's performance for U.S. military personnel at Al Faw Palace in Baghdad on June 7, 2009. (Steve Manuel/USO/Handout/Reuters)

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.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Jason Jones: Behind the Veil - Minarets of Menace
Daily Show
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Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran

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.