'Pat Philbin, the man who staged a fake FEMA news conference on the California wildfires last week, has lost his promotion because of the event, which begs the question: What does it actually take to get fired from FEMA?" That was the lead story on the latest installment of Weekend Update, the faux news broadcast on "Saturday Night Live."
Something bothered me about this, and not just Amy Poehler's misuse of the phrase "beg the question." Nor was it the idea that FEMA's staged news conference was scandalous simply because reporters, listening by phone, weren't able to ask questions while FEMA bureaucrats lobbed "fake" questions. There's no such thing as fake questions, after all, only fake answers. Was FEMA's fabrication any more fraudulent than, say, press releases written like real news stories?
Poehler, for instance, was co-anchoring a fake news broadcast denouncing a fake news conference. All the while, the guest host of "Saturday Night Live" was NBC's real news anchor, Brian Williams.
Or take Stephen Colbert, host of a fake cable news show, "The Colbert Report," itself a spinoff from the fake newscast "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." Colbert was recently a guest on "Meet the Press" -- the Thunderdome of real news -- as he was trying to mount a bogus campaign for president (abandoned Monday). Colbert stayed in character. So did Tim Russert, grilling Colbert as if he were a real candidate, of sorts.
The exchange vexed Ana Marie Cox, Washington editor of Time.com, who rightly ridiculed the stunt as "painfully so-ironic-it-was-unironic." Cox has a good ear for such things: Her own meteoric rise started with her tenure as the founding Wonkette blogger, where she mocked newsmakers the way robots mocked bad movies on "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Cox sized up the Colbert-Russert show as cringe-worthy -- bad journalism because it was bad entertainment.
Williams fared better at "Saturday Night Live," successfully showing off his lighter side. But, as with Russert's stunt, it was another naked attempt by NBC to lure younger viewers back to real news. Indeed, while the network news broadcasts are sustained by the consumers of denture cream, adult diapers and pharmacological marital aides, it's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" that have a grip on the hip, iPhone crowd. And plenty of those younger viewers seem to believe that they can deduce what's going on in the real world from jokes on a fake newscast. It's no longer funny because it's true. It's true because it's funny.
Now that's begging the question.
The problem of parsing fact from fiction, news from entertainment, has been inherent to broadcast journalism from the beginning. Radio newsman Walter Winchell got his start in vaudeville. But in the modern era, I blame "Murphy Brown," the show about a fictional TV newswoman who talked about real newsmakers as if they were characters on her sitcom. When Brown had a baby out of wedlock, Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the writers of the show. Liberals then reacted as though Quayle had insulted a real person. Ever since, journalists and politicians have been playing themselves in movies and TV series, perhaps trying to disprove the cliche that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people.
TV news is, and always has been, the shallowest branch of journalism. This is why TV journalism in particular operates like a trade guild -- not because it's so hard to do but because it's so easy. (The Brits more forthrightly call their TV anchors "news readers.") For instance, in 2000, Sam Donaldson led a successful internal revolt over a plan to have Leonardo DiCaprio interview President Clinton for ABC News. The essence of the complaint was that viewers wouldn't be able to tell the difference between DiCaprio and a "real" TV reporter. Let's face it, that's true. Even DiCaprio can read questions off an index card or TelePrompTer.
"Yes, it's a changed business," Donaldson said at the time, "and we ought to recognize that. But we also all have to recognize that we have to do things according to the standards that will help us retain our credibility."
I think Donaldson was right, but I also don't mind that TV news is trying to be relevant to viewers not on the AARP's mailing list. What I find dismaying is that "relevance" is literally coming at the expense of reality.