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The new opiate of the people

OK, those fake-news shows may tickle your funny bone, but perhaps at the expense of your activism gland.

January 12, 2007|Courtney E. Martin | The Baltimore Sun

If Marshall McLuhan was right that "the medium is the message," in the case of wildly popular fake news, the message must be: Laugh your head off or you'll just end up crying your eyes out. But what if a few angry and motivating tears are what we need? What if all this laughing is pacifying us, making us inert? I hate to say it -- I love my Amy Poehler fix as much as the next gal -- but I fear that therapeutic irony is rendering us politically impotent.

We are drawn to fake news for obvious reasons. Reading a witty Onion headline feels a lot better than another depressing, straight news story. Watching Jon Stewart's adorable and brilliantly timed shrug beats Wolf Blitzer's barely perceptible personality any day. Sometimes funny news feels more honest than the serious stuff, the ironic take more close to the truth than the supposedly "objective" one.

Laughing is inherently healing, and in a time of secret government contracts and State of the Union addresses given in fake Southern accents, we all need a little relief. But like comfort food consumed night after night in place of broccoli, we are gorging ourselves on what feels good instead of processing what feels so bad -- and doing something about it.

Other than voting, when was the last time you performed a political act more public than sending a link to the Onion's funniest new podcast to your old college roommates?

These fake-news juggernauts -- Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler on "Saturday Night Live," the folks at the Onion website -- have such rich material because our government is so outlandishly corrupt. It is not their witty rendering of that material that we should be spending most of our time on, but the material itself. There is a role, a very necessary role, for humor and release in this depressing climate, but not as a complete replacement of our moral conscience or outraged action.

Satire, of course, has a long and proven history as the source of bona-fide social change. Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," George Orwell's "Animal Farm" -- all of these led to new public awareness that then led to protest, even some pragmatic reforms. But does the one-millionth joke about President Bush's preschool perception of global geography really regain the trust of the international community?

It seems that the difference between a satire such as "Animal Farm" and "The Daily Show" is that the latter too often makes us comfortable, satiated, even happy, as opposed to the very motivating and sometimes terrifying disequilibrium caused by Orwell. Rebels distributed copies of "Animal Farm," a novella satirizing totalitarianism, to displaced Soviets in Ukraine right after World War II. The occupying U.S. military discovered them and confiscated 1,500 copies that would later be handed over to the Russian authorities whom the Americans were, at least temporarily, trying to aid. The vicious and powerful humor contained within that small book sure scared the corrupt leaders of that time.

Clearly, the huge audience for sarcastic, sophisticated slapstick means an increase in public awareness of current events. This is an undeniable benefit, beyond the salutary giggle, of consuming this kind of news. The National Annenberg Election Survey released in September 2004 reported that "The Daily Show's" viewers knew more about election issues than people who regularly read newspapers or watched news.

But what are we doing with this knowledge, besides rehashing it at the water cooler the next morning? Contrary to Bill O'Reilly's jealous claim that "Daily Show" viewers are all "stoned slackers" and "dopey kids," Comedy Central reports that Stewart's viewers are 78% more likely than the average adult to have four or more years of college and 74% more likely to have a household income of $75,000 and an occupation of "professional, owner or manager."

It appears that those of us who respond to ironic or "fake" news are a well-educated, socially and politically aware, upper-middle-class bunch. The onus is on us not to just get our jollies at the strategic spinning of our government's latest foible, but to do something about it. We are the ones with the donation dollars that, pooled, could influence elections. We are the ones with the resources to sue corrupt corporations or lobby Congress about key issues such as health insurance and Social Security. We are the ones with the time to consume news; now we just need to learn when to turn off the TV or shut down the computer and head out into the streets.

I'm not advocating boycotting sweet Jon or leaving the Onion to rot. I am reminding us all, especially the young and appropriately outraged, not to let our laughter soothe our social conscience. We should be so uncomfortable with the state of things that we can't idly sit by, giggling at our daily dose of fake news and then falling asleep.

In this side-splittingly hypocritical country, you are entitled to the pursuit of happiness -- so go ahead, laugh.

But please, refrain from laughing until "it don't hurt no more." It should hurt. It should hurt so badly that you have to get up from the couch and do something about it.

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