Parodying Cable News With a Talk About Race


New York Times | August 14, 2013 | By 

On Tuesday night on MSNBC’s “All In,” Chris Hayes had a very direct conversation about race with the Gawker writer Cord Jefferson. Prompted by a news report of a group of young people in Huntington Beach, Calif., who looted and vandalized property, the pair lamented the lack of community leadership and suggested that acting out in that manner was a learned behavior.

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). “These young people are learning this kind of behavior in lacrosse camps,” he said. “They’re learning this kind of behavior at college spring break. They’re 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.

The growing bankruptcy of cable news reminds me of the rise and fall of celebrity profiles in magazines. After years of churning out breathless stories about this or that star, writers grew bored with the formula. They began to undermine it in self-conscious ways, sometimes writing a profile that was mostly about how dumb and hard it was to write a profile. You can only take so many rides in a convertible with the starlet or watch as she sips lattes at the Chateau Marmont before it becomes hard to act like an actual transaction is under way.

Making news entertaining on a live television show is no easy thing, either. MSNBC and Fox News have to hunt down red meat every day for their political bases, while CNN has to search for traction in the middle. On those days when Edward J. Snowden is not freed from the Moscow airport or a man isn’t convicted of enslaving women, they still have to turn on the lights and begin talking. It’s simple math that the people caught in the cameras will eventually say and do dumb things to fill white space.

Beating up on its excesses is like riding down the hill after a bloody battle and shooting the wounded. That doesn’t mean that “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” aren’t great, only that they operate in a target-rich environment. And it is worth pointing out that they serve as a primary source of information for many viewers.

Those shows are about to get a bit of company. Fusion, a joint venture of ABC News and Univision, announced last week that its initial prime-time lineup, starting in September, will include a news satire show produced by David Javerbaum, an executive producer on “The Daily Show” from 2006 to 2012.

In some respects, the fact that Mr. Hayes broke some ground is not surprising. He is a relative newcomer to the land of prime-time cable talkers, doesn’t have much in the way of ratings at risk, and is more self-aware than others on cable news. And NBC is a natural home for a wink: Brian Williams, the anchor of the “Nightly News,” has always been on the playful side about the conventions of “anchordom.”

“The biggest challenge is to find a way to surprise viewers and subvert expectations,” said Mr. Hayes, adding that he loved the generally positive response the segment had received online and elsewhere. “The format is in need of evolution.”

Mr. Jefferson of Gawker described the segment as “a one-act play on racism.” He suggested that because a generation of viewers has become accustomed, and devoted, to the work of Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert, “it makes sense that others begin to incorporate what they do so well.”

Those shows have created a generation of meta-news consumers who are in on the joke and already know the story. What remains is the appetite for context and meaning, the kind of thing great satire supplies in abundance. The next generation of information consumers might demand their news with the jokes already tacked on.

E-mail: [email protected];

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 9, 2013

The Media Equation column on Monday, about a satirical conversation about race between the MSNBC host Chris Hayes and the Gawker writer Cord Jefferson, omitted some phrases in a quotation by Mr. Jefferson. He said: “These young people are learning this kind of behavior in lacrosse camps. They’re learning this kind of behavior at college spring break.” He did not say: “They are learning this kind of behavior in lacrosse camps. They are learning this during spring break.”

This article was originally posted at The New York Times.