When fake news is better than real

Observations on media

We know that American youth, like youth across the western world, switches off when the TV news comes on. So what are the sources of their news? Comedy programmes showing "fake news", according to a new study.

The Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press says that such programmes "are beginning to rival mainstream news outlets within this generation". On the Comedy Central cable TV channel, for example, The Daily Show has the stand-up comedian Jon Stewart manning the anchor desk and interspersing the day's headlines with satirical commentary. Stewart covered George Bush's State of the Union address last month by pointing to the promises - from billions for fighting Aids to hydrogen-powered cars - that were included in previous speeches by Bush but never mentioned again, let alone implemented.

Since becoming the face of The Daily Show in 1999, Stewart has tripled the programme's viewing figures, reaching more than a million mostly young people on an average night. Newsweek magazine calls it the "coolest pit stop on television". Everyone from Hillary Rodham Clin- ton to the Bush administration Svengali Richard Perle has spent time on Stewart's interview couch.

Senator John Edwards even announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination live on The Daily Show last autumn. Stewart, with deadpan gravity, interrupted Edwards to remind him that since this was a fake news show, the announcement "might not count". When another US senator, Joseph Biden, recently appeared, he confided that his daughter pays no heed when he appears on mainstream news programmes such as Meet the Press. But when he told her that he was to appear on Stewart's show, she implored him to "do well".

Indeed, The Daily Show is at its best when it is sending up mainstream news programmes, including the 24-hour cable channels. After the Democratic front-runner Howard Dean did badly in the Iowa caucuses, Stewart showed media clips of cable news pundits - none of whom came close to predicting Dean's fate - and lamented the "hours and hours of vital television time" given over to "idle and often contradictory speculation". CNN, Stewart suggests, would do better to concentrate on the Michael Jackson trial and car chases and leave political reporting to the comedy networks. Perhaps failing to get the joke, CNN broadcasts a special edition of The Daily Show on its international network.

The Democratic Party has invited The Daily Show's army of phoney correspondents to cover its presidential nominating convention in Boston this July. As a resident of Boston, I can confirm that it won't have much local competition. Last summer, my wife and I found ourselves at the centre of a local media swarm when four satellite trucks took up position on our suburban street for the better part of a week. The story? The cat-lady - a mentally unsound neighbour who kept more than 80 cats in her tiny apartment.

The Daily Show: global edition is broadcast at 11.30pm, Sundays and Mondays, on CNN in the UK

This article first appeared in the 23 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, End of the sex war