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‘The Daily Show’, Fox News, and Ferguson: The Dangers of an Alternate News Reality

Unlike the regular news shows it began skewering and ended up, for many, supplanting, The Daily Show goes on vacation. They time these breaks carefully — over holidays, or during stretches of the summer (like, say, mid-August) when news usually isn’t happening. It didn’t time out that way this year. The Daily Show aired on August 7 and then went on a two-and-a-half week hiatus; on August 9, Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. As that shock over that shooting gave way to protests, tear gas, police militarization and threats, looting, and general horror, those of us who increasingly look to Stewart and company for a bit of levity and/or indignation had to wait. Last night, Stewart returned, with a reminder that while alums Colbert and Oliver may give TDS a run for their money in the social/political satire department, Stewart’s program remains untouchable in the area of fierce, stinging media commentary.

The target of Stewart’s ire, unsurprisingly, is Fox News. He kicks off his segment with a clip of Bill O’Reilly announcing, regarding the Brown shooting, “I am furious!” (Stewart: “Of course you are!”) But, come to find out, it’s not the broad daylight execution of an unarmed black teen by a white cop — no, O’Reilly is furious about the reporting of the shooting, and the reaction to it. “Yes, that is the outrage,” Stewart smirks. And over the course of the following segment (one of The Daily’s best in recent memory), we see that while Stewart and company may have been on vacation, his peerless crew of Fox-watchers haven’t; they provide the expected montages of Fox talking heads, complaining about the coverage of the story, railing about the “playing of the race card,” and pulling out their favorite mantra, “Why aren’t we covering black-on-black crime?” (“Yes,” Stewart agrees, “why all the interest in holding police officers to a higher standard… than gangs?”)

The Daily Show
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The Stewart segment ultimately serves a purpose made more valuable by the two weeks we’ve been waiting for it: as a reset button, a refresher/reminder of what, exactly, we’re talking about here. Or, as Stewart (rhetorically) asked gun-toting slimeball Sean Hannity, “You really do have no fucking idea, do you?” Because what Fox has done in the case of Ferguson is what they have always done, and will continue to do: adhering to the Mad Men philosophy that if you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.

We’ve seen it over and over again on the network in the two weeks since unrest in Ferguson began: focusing on looters and Moltov cocktails, bypassing Brown’s death to stir up their old bogeymen of the New Black Panthers, dismissing the rightful concern over racial bias in Ferguson’s policing as the wolf-crying of “race baiters” (from the all-white panel on The Five, of course). And, of course, there was the troubling characterizations of Brown as a cigar-stealing “thug” who maybe wasn’t unarmed after all, since “we’re talking about an 18-year-old man who is 6-foot-4 and weighs almost 300 pounds.” Most alarmingly, they’ve pushed the narrative that Officer Darren Wilson was badly injured in the scuffle (a story pushed by widely mocked blogger Jim Hoft, using an altered 2008 stock image of an eye socket X-ray), to confirm the notion that Brown, the thug, got what he deserved.

Bill O'Reilly on Ferguson

And that, in a roundabout and by now fascinating (anthropologically speaking) way, is what’s truly remarkable and, ultimately, insidious about Fox News: not that they’re a news organization with a right-wing bent, but that they’ve managed to convince their viewers that they’re the only ones reporting things honestly, the only place that you can get the real story. That “fair and balanced” shit isn’t just trolling (as comforting and ultimately harmless as that would be).

They’ve built a business model around the specter of the “liberal media” so successfully that we now just have multiple versions of the news, with no single trusted source. So when a story — like this one —paints a less-than-flattering portrait of trigger-happy white people, other trigger-happy white people can just find the version of the news that doesn’t make them uncomfortable. And make no mistake, this is about coddling Fox’s white viewers; otherwise, someone, somewhere within the network might’ve pointed out the slight discrepancy between their commentators’ unquestioning trust of the Ferguson police and their coverage of the Cliven Bundy clusterfuck.

But perhaps the most damaging byproduct of Fox News’ ubiquity is that they’ve managed to shift the goal posts for even the “liberal media” that they sneer at, forcing outlets that don’t conform to their worldview to at least tip to it. (That’s about the only plausible explanation for the New York Times’ already notorious “no angel” piece.) Never mind that stealing cigars, to say nothing of living in a community with “rough patches,” dabbling in drugs and alcohol, and “tak[ing] to rapping,” are not death penalty offenses.

The more Fox talks, and the louder they talk, the more they overpower the conversation we should be having: about an unarmed young black man, shot dead by an officer who was sworn to protect him, and left to lay in the street for four-plus hours. Instead, we’ll talk about race baiters, and irresponsible reporters, and New Black Panthers, and Officer Wilson, poor Officer Wilson, how can I send some money to poor Officer Wilson? “We will not hide, we will no longer live in fear,” an unidentified white woman told The Guardian at a pro-Wilson protest over the weekend. Well, at least we’re all clear on who the true victims are here.

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