Saturday, 15 December 2007

US: No Satire, No News

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlerNet blog on 15 December 2007.

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Everyone who thought American television news couldn't get any worse has been proven wrong in recent weeks, as the writers' strike has shut down the satirical news shows where so many people get their news these days. Yes, it's not just drama and sit-coms that have been hit by industrial action by the Writers Guild of America, Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert's "Colbert Report" have also been in reruns since early November.

We're not talking about the loss of a couple comedy shows here. With the cliff-dive dumbing-down of US TV news over the last decade or so, these satirical news programs have become primary sources of information for millions of Americans in recent years -- particularly younger and more educated ones. The loss is felt, and there is a growing public debate about its impact on politics.

Monica Guzman of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer looks at the slump in ratings and asks: "As for the millions who say they get their news from these shows -- however brief and slanted (or surprisingly substantial) -- and those who rarely pick up a newspaper or read an article online, will they not only stop laughing, but also stop knowing?" Matthew Felling, editor of the CBSNews.com daily blog "Public Eye", emphasises the shows' importance in the overall news environment in the US: "They gave the serious newspeople an out, an excuse -- the producers and anchors could run the material that said what they couldn't. They were the outsourcing of sanity and perspective in an all-too-often surreal and laughable political environment."

Felling thinks that in the absence of the satirists, American politicians are getting away with more, changing the tone of the 2008 presidential campaign. I would think that it is also changing coverage of foreign news and foreign policy, too, as these are areas where the two shows have been very strong, especially on Iraq.

Now, some readers of this blog who have criticised me for defending news before, may think I am over-reacting, but the impact of these shows is huge. Stewart and Colbert do not pull in top-level politicians as guests night after night because their shows are inconsequential.

The sooner the writers' strike is over, the better for the American public debate on foreign policy and other political priorities. MoveOn.org has picked this up as a public campaign, with a Facebook page and a petition. They put the blame squarely on the studios' shoulders: "The studios will make over $120 million in ad revenue this year showing TV programs on the web. But they want to give writers a one-time payment of $250 -- that's right, $250 -- for unlimited use of their content online. This unbelievable greed is keeping Jon Stewart and his team off the air."

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