An Echo Chamber, Silenced

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

The writers' strike is playing havoc with fake news.

If you've become accustomed to getting your dose of reality from ironic oracles like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, you should prepare for a spell in fantasyland.

Those two shows, written by comedy writers, of course, not journalists, have switched to repeats while the Writers Guild figures out how to get the best deal from revenues for new media and DVDs. Other shows are on hold too.

In yesterday's New York Times, David Carr reassured us that if David Letterman is "a little short on jokes, no worries: He'll be back."

But in the meantime, both sides in the writers' dispute risk losing their young audiences, what Carr calls "a certain frantic demographic... the Stewart Colbert Nation."

Carr says that, "however hilarious you find Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert," watching repeats reduces the appeal of shows that thrive on current events.

"Talkers like Bill O'Reilly and Larry King will continue to bloviate, network news will dutifully report the day's events and even Jay Leno may be able to fill the hour (although the prospect of his working without snappy cue cards isn't a pleasant one)," Carr writes. He quotes Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America East, as saying that Stewart and Colbert "are a big source of news for a whole generation."

Losing these two guys, Winship said, "is something like losing Cronkite during the Vietnam War."

A similar time-and-reality warp has been occurring over at NBC, where Colbert appeared on Meet the Press. He was discussing his mock campaign for president, an effort he abandoned after South Carolina Democrats refused to put him on the ballot because he wasn't "serious."

What? Is Mike Gravel serious?

In today's L.A. Times, Jonah Goldberg says Colbert "stayed in character" while on Meet the Press, as did Tim Russert, "grilling Colbert as if he were a real candidate."

Ana Marie Cox, Washington editor of, "rightly ridiculed the stunt as 'painfully so-ironic-it-was-unironic,' " Goldberg reports. "Cox sized up the Colbert-Russert show as cringe-worthy: bad journalism because it was bad entertainment."

Elsewhere on NBC, you had another bogus news anchor, Amy Poehler, on Saturday Night Live, "co-anchoring a fake news broadcast denouncing a fake news conference," Goldberg says. He was referring to the now notorious comedy routine by officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who posed their own employees as reporters.

"All the while, the guest host of Saturday Night Live was NBC's real news anchor, Brian Williams," who successfully showed off "his lighter side" on a show that also featured real-life presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Tom Shales, in yesterday's Washington Post, said Williams "was able to keep his dignity and get laughs, too, especially when spoofing himself and his need to keep his dignity."

"But, as with Russert's stunt, it was another naked attempt by NBC to lure younger viewers back to real news," the L.A. Times's Goldberg says. "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."

Either way, Jim Rutenberg says in today's New York Times, the TV writers' strike could affect the presidential campaign by wiping out the "echo chamber that is late-night comedy."

"Today's gaffe will not become tonight's punch line on The Tonight Show or The Daily Show," a crucial step for negative story lines before they hit the grinder of YouTube and the rest of the media, Rutenberg says.

He quotes Deborah DeShong Reed, a communications adviser to John Kerry's 2004 campaign, as saying, "This is a good time to make a mistake."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan