One Easy Way to Spot When News is Actually Advertising

Was it long absence that made something so subtle appear so obvious? It’s been a long time since I’ve watched TV news. Is that why a blink-and-you-miss it segment jumped up, slapped me in the face, and yelled, “I’m not a real news piece! I’m trying to sell you something!”?

I don’t know, but it did teach me one good lesson about how to cut through the crap. Here’s one easy trick for spotting when news is more than mere news – look for the unnecessary element.

Look for that bit which adds nothing to your understanding of the story. The bit that seems chosen arbitrarily. The meaningless trifle. The thing which, when added, completely changes the meaning of the entire piece.

See if you can spot it in the news I saw. The story ran something like this:

It is the anniversary of a long-ago big change in our currency system.

An elderly man is interviewed. He worked at a particular bank in his youth and had to keep a close eye on the change.

Background info is given. Why we changed – it was a simpler system. The challenges – people thought it would be confusing. Why it worked – it had a good PR campaign. A few black and white cartoons drive home the point.

A young woman from the same bank as the old man is interviewed. “Most of our customers now use internet banking,” she says. The news presenter closes the story, “…and that goes to show that people are just as adaptable as they’ve ever been.”

Did you spot it?

Think for a moment.

Why that particular bank? Twice. And why mention internet banking? That currency change – a massive abrupt government rearrangement of the system – was in no way similar to the general private trend towards internet banking. Why bring it up? And besides… doesn’t everyone already know this?

At face value they are trying to tie the past to the present. Make it relevant. We changed then, we change now. But it still is a strange choice. We’ve had other top-down abrupt changes to our currency system in recent times – phasing out small coins, redesigning notes etc. Surely these are the obvious examples to turn to.

So why talk about internet banking? Surely this is an unnecessary element. Yet it completely changes the meaning of the story.

Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe the media can’t help but churn this stuff out. Maybe the entire story was written by that bank. But the meaning of the story is clear:

Hi there old folks!

Are you old enough that you still watch TV news? Are you old enough that you remember that big old currency change? Are you old enough that you don’t already know that everybody uses internet banking these days?

Well, then you’ll remember that even though the currency change looked big and scary it turned out to be both easy and so much simpler than the old way… just like internet banking.

Most of our customers already use it. You’ve made a big change before. You can make a big change again.

Internet banking. It’s for you!

 

 

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The News is Serious Business. It’s Hilarious.

We have a strange situation. The news has been overrun by comedians. John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee…. A lot of people are relying on comedians for their news, despite the comedians repeatedly saying “We don’t do news!” The term “comedic journalism” has even been invented to explain this apparently new phenomena: comedians doing news.

Why do the comedians keep resisting the label of journalism when they look suspiciously like they are doing journalism? The answer is simple.

It’s not journalism.

It’s satire.

Close, but different.

All the claims of journalism, comedic journalism, or something new going on here are missing the mark. The current popularity of John Oliver or the Daily Show might be new, but satire is old. Very old. And it’s not journalism.

Imagine a cliché ye olde King’s court.

On one side of the throne is the herald. On the other side is the jester. The herald reads the news. The jester makes fun of it. The herald tells things as they are supposed to be. The jester tells things as they are not supposed to be. The herald proclaims the latest victory in battle. The jester points out that it was such a great victory that even the enemy is celebrating.

Satire isn’t like other forms of comedy, which is why people keep confusing it for journalism.  Satire is about the real world. Satire is always, deep down, serious stuff. Humor isn’t even in the definition. Satire is a form of social investigation, a probing, a prodding, a pulling at the threads, trying to figure out what’s really going on underneath. Satire exposes our illusions, and cuts quick to the heart of how society really works. Satire baits the powerful into exposing their own absurdity, like when Bill Maher made a joke about Donald Trump, and Trump sued him. The issue at stake: was Trump’s father an orang-utan? Trump says no.

Satire can even tell the future:

Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over’

 January 17, 2001 – The Onion

September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the financial crash hadn’t even happened yet. That’s the power of satire.

In contrast, journalism’s job is to report what happened. Simply. Objectively. Dispassionately. This can involve speaking truth to power, and it can involve reinforcing power. Satire, however, is always on the attack.

The herald and the jester might occasionally agree, but their jobs are very different. So why are people turning away from the herald, and towards the jester? The circumstances that would cause that to happen are not hard to figure out: people will prefer the jester when the herald’s truth sounds like bullshit, and the jester’s bullshit sounds like truth.

The heralds these days must have been speaking a lot of bullshit.

 

 

Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

Watch John Oliver denying the repeated allegations of journalism. Here.

The Onion’s 2001 mock article on George Bush. Here.

Watch Bill Maher discussing his lawsuit with Trump. Here.

For some extreme cases of people not able to tell the difference between satire and journalism see literallyunbelievable.org.