The Universal Notebook: And now the fake news …

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Last evening as I watched humorless CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer ask urgent questions about what the endorsement from Sarah Palin would mean for Donald Trump, I came to the sudden realization that Wolf Blitzer is not human.

I am convinced that Wolf Blitzer is a cyborg programmed to present the news. He has the emotional range of a mollusk. An airhead endorsing a doofus, a mass shooting, a crippling storm, a presidential campaign debate – all equally compelling when you’re not real.

“A squirrel crossing a power line blew a transformer in Seekonk, Massachusetts. I’m Wolf Blitzer and you’re in the Situation Room.”

The best news broadcasts in America have been phony news for some time now. Alas, with the “Colbert Report” gone and Jon Stewart having left “The Daily Show,” it’s getting harder and harder to find entertaining and ironic news. Even “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update isn’t what it once was. It’s almost like phony fake news.

Norm Macdonald, who anchored Weekend Update in the mid-1990s, always opened the segment with, “I’m Norm Macdonald and now the fake news.” Today, he’s playing Col. Sanders in KFC commercials.

Dennis Miller was the first host of Weekend Update, but somewhere along the line Miller lost his sense of humor and became just another angry neoconservative, much as Bill Maher lost his and became just another angry liberal. The 21st century has been hard on humorists.

Weekend Update had a hilarious revival at the turn of the millennium (when I could still sometimes stay awake past 11:30 p.m.), when guileless Jimmy Fallon and deadpan Tina Fey were the odd couple of the fake news. Fallon hasn’t been quite as innocent since he took over the “Tonight” show from Jay Leno and Fey, who returns to SNL occasionally to reprise her dead-on Sarah Palin, now does hair color commercials and appears in silly movies.

I grew up in the 1960s watching the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC and “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,” the wise old man of broadcast news. Cronkite always ended his broadcasts with “And that’s the way it is …,” as though he were in personal possession of the absolute truth.

In my experience, the first little crack in the cultural windshield of feigned news neutrality appeared on the evening of Feb. 27, 1968, and spidered out from there to increasing partisanship, satire and self-parody. It was on that evening that Good Old Uncle Walter, a World War II war correspondent just back from Vietnam, broke the news to us that America was not winning the war.

“But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could. This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.”

Subsequently we’ve had a stable of male news anchors like Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, the last of this ilk being Brian Williams – a stuffed shirt with an expensive haircut and a sense of humor, but also with a penchant for embellishing his war stories.

For some reason, most of the women news anchors have been blonde, among them Barbara Walters, Leslie Stahl, Joan Lunden, Jane Pauley, Diane Sawyer, Meredith Vieira and Katie Couric. And then, of course, there’s Megyn Kelly, the Fox News commentator who hasn’t been the same since she tried to rub Donald Trump’s nose in his sexist remarks and was accused by Trump of having “blood coming out of her whatever.”

We do have the tandem of Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff on the “PBS NewsHour,” but I confess I don’t watch very often. Something about the outdated production values on public television (which are never more in evidence than during fundraisers) makes me think I’m not getting the latest news.

My favorite news broadcaster these days is openly gay public policy nerd Rachel Maddow. Yes, I understand that MSNBC shares my progressive bias, but I do occasionally seek to be fair and balanced by channel surfing through Fox News, where Shepard Smith tries to be the voice of reason, Sean Hannity is never anything other than a conservative shill and Bill O’Reilly, the inspiration for Colbert’s self-righteous conservative alter ego, pontificates nightly.

A 2007 Indiana University School of Journalism study using a methodology developed in the 1930s by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis found that O’Reilly’s rants satisfied the very definition of propaganda. He also used a lot of name-calling and portrayed non-Americans as threats.

As Bob Dylan sang back in 1965, “While money doesn’t talk, it swears/ Obscenity, who really cares/ Propaganda, all is phony.”

And that’s the way it is.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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  • Queenie42

    What a great column, Mr. Beem, as usual.
    I remember Huntley-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. I remember Mr. Cronkite openly weeping when he told us of the death of J.F.K. We all wept with him. I also remember Edward R. Morrow and David Frost and a show called “That Was the Week that Was”.
    Not having watched television for about 10 years, I do not get to see, nor do I miss the commercial laden (including PBS) pablum that is fed up to the public as “News”.
    Most of my news gathering comes from print and the internet and even there, one has to follow the source, get back to the money and agenda behind the story. For instance, the run-up to the phony war on Iraq. The media is not to be trusted. Always question.
    Remember Mike Royko? Molly Ivins? When our local paper ceased to be of much value and became just another wing of the Chamber of Commerce, there used to be great columnists who, with wit and humor, gave us great food for thought. No more.
    Now I rely on British newspapers and U-Tube and follow stories about subjects that interest me.
    But, it isn’t what the media are saying to us, it’s what they don’t tell us that is the problem. Try to find updates on Fukushima.

  • Lucy Ball

    It helps to be able to decipher the differences between news, commentary, opinion outright BS and bias by the omission of facts

    • EABeem

      Agreed.

  • Mark Clark

    Dennis Miller was the first host of WU? When did you start watching SNL?

    • EABeem

      Oops, Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin came first. I started day one (1975?) but have a very spotty memory.

  • Christopher White

    News departments have long been ‘loss leaders’ for their parent companies and in turn their massive, global, corporate media entities. As such, ‘branding’ and ‘audience share’ have long since been the drivers for what gets covered, and how they are covered, on the nightly news. Much the same set of constraints applies to a large number of print media newspapers and magazines. From my days in the late sixties in an AP International Relations class, when we spent a section learning how to sift through news articles to isolate facts from spin, I’ve been a skeptic when it comes to simply accepting what I hear or see a news anchor say as being ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’ I try to find multiple sources, pull out the facts all sources agree on and make up my own mind how to interpret those facts. Silly me.

    • EABeem

      Facts? Now there’s an interesting concept.

  • yathink2011

    So what we read in the Forecaster is real, or fake?

    • EABeem

      Yes.

      • yathink2011

        Good answer

  • Charles Martel

    Why am I not surprised Rachel Madcow is your favorite news catheter?

    • EABeem

      Probably because I am very clear about having a progressive point of view. Not like I pretend I don’t.