April 1, 2020

The Media Equation: Parodying Cable News With a Talk About Race

It was a joke. Actually, there were two beats to the joke. The young people they were talking about were white. And the whole discussion was a put-on, a satire meant to show how lame the hoary race tropes of cable news have become.

As a comedy bit, it was very well done. Both men were straight-faced and earnest. Mr. Hayes, tapping his inner Bill O’Reilly, did a fine job of bloviating his way through an introduction heavy with outrage: “The story of the white criminal culture is not a story the mainstream media will tell you. But once you scratch the surface, these stories are everywhere you look.”

Mr. Jefferson, whose post on Gawker prompted the TV bit, was the designated finger-wagging scold — a black man taking measure of white pathology — said “they are learning this kind of behavior in lacrosse camps, they are learning this during spring break, they are learning this kind of behavior at Ivy League fraternities where drug use and binge drinking are normalized behavior.”

Cable news and humor are generally matter and antimatter, with self-selected audiences listening intently while self-serious anchors lion-tame guests fighting for the last sound bite. Nuance doesn’t do well on cable, and complexity goes there to die. As a result, something as fraught as race often ends up being covered in cartoonish ways during signal events like the death of Trayvon Martin.

All of the familiar trademarks of cable silliness were there in the faux news segment. Mr. Hayes and Mr. Jefferson prattled on while a video news loop showed, over and over, a handful of individuals trashing outhouses and a bike store after a surfing contest, all the while drawing lessons from thin air and moralizing over fake sociological claptrap. It was, in other words, a very standard bit of cable news.

As such, it was both striking and very much of a piece with the universe it was parodying. Is “Fox and Friends” real? Does Chris Matthews really feel all shout-y and frantic about every little wobble in the political debate? Can Mr. O’Reilly really be as deeply offended by almost everything he sees, or Rachel Maddow as surprised as she acts about things that aren’t that surprising? At some point, we all know that Anderson Cooper’s bottomless pit of empathy and umbrage is running on empty.

Speaking by telephone on Thursday, Mr. Hayes said that the risks of inserting satire into a format built on sobriety were worth it.

“It’s definitely entering dangerous territory because the social contract assumes that when I express opinions, those are genuinely my opinions,” he said. “You don’t mess with that lightly, but we thought it would be illuminating to play with those conventions.”

The segment on “All In” began with a written warning — “the following is a satirization of recent news analysis” — and ended with a return to preachiness, with Mr. Hayes wagging a finger, this time he meant it, and suggesting that viewers needed to see that coverage of black America was just as silly.

But it was still a bit of a moment. Instead of waiting for Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert to clip and annotate cable vapidity, MSNBC was temporarily acting as a kind of self-cleaning oven, parodying the excesses of cable from a very near distance.

“I think it was sort of brilliant,” said Jeffrey P. Jones, the director of the Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia, and the author of “Entertaining Politics.” “What they did has been done before in all kinds of ways, but the context, of putting the satire right into a cable news show, makes it very powerful.”

Pop culture is perishable. Certain things that seem like givens — that there will always be people at desks on television telling us what we should think about what happened that day — can eventually run out of gas.

E-mail: carr@nytimes.com;

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Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/05/business/media/parodying-cable-news-with-a-talk-about-race.html?partner=rss&emc=rss