A rich vein of work in journalism studies is that existing norms and narrative functions of the craft are seen as obsolete by a new generation of media-savvy digital natives. This funky crew wants performers who mash up satire, news & popular culture and break the fourth wall between medium and audience.
Here in Australia, there have been experiments on the ABC along these lines with Shaun Micaleff’s Newstopia and, more recently (and more successfully) Mad as Hell, alongside The Chaser’s Hamster Wheel. Channel Ten has had success with The Panel and The Project.
“It’s news, but not as you know it,” is The Project’s marketing line. And it appears to have worked, with ratings turning up this year. The formula of wise-cracking comedian panelists making light of the day’s news is really what breakfast FM radio has been doing for the last 30 years.
The networks like the panel shows because they are cheap. Many of the packages are standard items, revoiced. And most of the on-screen activity consists of the panel members trading witticisms, albeit in a safe, apolitical and on-threatening way that doesn’t distance the advertisers.
There are couple of schools of thought about the blurring of lines between news, comedy, talk, satire and light entertainment. One, as expressed in this 2005 academic paper by Geoffrey Baym, is that his represents a long overdue reinvention and reinvigoration of stale and overly rigid news formats.
“Discourses of news, politics, entertainment, and marketing have grown deeply inseparable; the languages and practices of each have lost their distinctiveness and are being melded into previously unimagined combinations. Although some may see this as a dangerous turn in the realm of political communication, it also can be seen as a rethinking of discursive styles and standards that may be opening spaces for significant innovation.”
It’s worth keeping in mind that this paper was written during George W Bush’s second term, when Stewart’s winking irreverence was finding a massive new audience seeking an authentic voice outside the heavily managed and manicured ‘view from nowhere’ output of the major networks.
The possibilities of the new ‘fake’ news seemed endless at that time. It was interrogating power, deconstructing propagandist narratives and, most of all, exposing the complicity of the media in reinforcing the established ruling structure. Indeed, if you looked at the innovations in the right light, you might have dared hope that new radical forces were dismantling the propaganda model of mass media highlighted by Chomsky and Herman a quarter of a century ago.
But capitalism has a way of subsuming and co opting radical cultural initiatives, commoditising the products of those initiatives and constantly transforming active citizens into passive consumers. So the “radical” and “new” news programs are now just another version of the same old wallpaper, putting the dollar-driven values of entertainment above the civic-driven virtues of information. Journalists, while conscious of the constricting formats, are imprisoned by it.
This isn’t to write off the satirical shows. Mad as Hell, for instance, is a sharply written and well observed as any of the US comedy programs. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think light entertainment programming can replace serious journalism, which requires the asking of unpopular and uncomfortable questions, hard graft investigation and (frequently) seriously pissing off powerful people.
We still need this sort of journalism. You can dress it up, of course. After all, it has to be engaging to be effective. But not everything can be light and fluffy and funny. Indeed, most of the best reporters I’ve met are prickly, driven and anti-social people. It’s their work that we need most. The biggest questions at the moment are how we pay for it and how to frame it in an innovative way without trivializing it.
‘Happy News’ is no substitute for the real thing.