Over the last decade, the newspaper industry has buckled. Three of network TV’s longest-running and most trusted news anchors (Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather) have disappeared from the airwaves. And cable news has become consumed by talking heads paid to eternally bicker as if trapped in some earthbound Purgatory, a place where opinion and hearsay are subtly suggested to be fact, and where it’s policy to cut away from coverage of the day’s most important issues to follow a live car chase on the L.A. freeway.
In this climate, comedic news shows—which began as a mild diversion, banking on the popularity of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update”—have become an essential part of our national dialogue. These days, fake news often seems more accurate and influential than actual news.
Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin on SNL, for example, did more to harpoon her candidacy than any mainstream news story. Satirical powerhouses like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Chocolate News and Onion TV draw their power from William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is truer than any journalism.
In a culture where Stephen Colbert delivers the keynote address at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and where a Time magazine poll reveals that Jon Stewart is “America’s Most Trusted Newscaster”—with 44 percent of the vote to runner-up NBC anchor Brian Williams’ 29 percent—it’s tough to argue to the contrary.