What’s So Funny?

Exploring Current Topics in Humor and Laughter

Is "Fake News" Really Fake?

Maybe you should rely on Stewart and Colbert for your news after all.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t read or watch much news any more. Television stations claiming to be bias-free still clutter their reporting with opinion and fluff, and even websites like Yahoo have become contaminated by the targeted culling of articles based on my previous viewing. Now they only deliver me baseball and football scores, plus the occasional movie listing.

Granted, sports news constitutes 95 percent of my online reading, but I still want to be shown the other stuff.

Enter the current age of “fake news.” I haven’t missed an episode of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show for over a year, or The Colbert Report. Both claim to be fake news shows, but I think they’re being coy. Indeed, they might be the last venues of actual reporting, which is ironic because they contain an obvious bias. That bias is for humor, highlighting only the stories with the funniest messages.

The irony is that by openly adopting this bias, they remain a rare source of true reporting by highlighting obvious contradictions in current events. Take for example John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. In a recent episode, Oliver tackled the climate change debate by pointing out that the "debate" exists nowhere but in the media. It doesn’t matter that one in four Americans doubt the science, because 19 of 20 scientists don’t. Addressing the topic as a debate may sound like balanced reporting, but it’s actually just pandering.

How did Oliver address the issue? By calling on 97 scientists to argue for climate change, and three to argue against. The debate was hilarious, but illuminating too.

When Harry Reid campaigned against big money in politics by targeting the Koch brothers, Jon Stewart pointed out that Reid had only positive things to say about casino-owner Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is also a politically active billionaire, though he just so happens to be a friend and major employer in Reid's state. As stated by correspondent Jason Jones, the United States isn’t an oligarchy, but Russia is, because “an oligarchy is a country run by billionaires who aren’t American.”

Why do traditional news networks seldom point out the same contradictions? Because such reporting would be perceived as bias. In a world where contradiction is only addressed by comedians, humor is a surprisingly effective tool for true political reporting.

That might not be so bad, because sometimes humor is the quickest way to get at complex issues. Returning again to John Oliver, I honestly didn’t understand the FCC’s net neutrality issue until he provided his humorous commentary: “The guy who used to run the cable industry’s lobbying arm is now running the agency tasked with regulating it. That is the equivalent of needing a baby sitter and hiring a dingo.”

On the death penalty, he also put the number of falsely executed innocent prisoners into context by comparing it to instances of voter fraud. For every fake vote in the state of Texas, twice as many innocent citizens are likely murdered by the state each year. This prompted Oliver to ask: “Do you want to watch a YouTube video of a hamster eating a tiny burrito? Because at this point, you have earned it.”

At first glance, this response might seem glib, like a silly diversion. I think it says more about the current state of affairs than any traditional news report.

Humor is indeed a bias, but a very useful one. Where there is conflict and contradiction, there’s also a pretty good joke. But jokes don’t mean the topic isn’t serious. They mean that something is wrong, and we need to recognize the farce when we see it.

And, lastly, here’s a really great video of a hamster eating a burrito.

Scott Weems is a cognitive neuroscientist with degrees in psychology, education, and creative writing. He is also author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why.
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