2004: When Fake News Was Cool

Amid the current cultural upheavals, the Yesterday in Styles feature is taking a journey back to see the seeds of today’s change through our own rough drafts of history.

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, New York Times
Amid the current cultural upheavals, the Yesterday in Styles feature is taking a journey back to see the seeds of today’s change through our own rough drafts of history.
Print Headline

“The Week That Wasn’t,” published in The New York Times in October 2004.

The Story

It was the year of fake news. No, not 2017, when so-called fake news reigned as a staple of the president’s tweets, Facebook cracked down on false accounts that spewed propaganda, and the Collins Dictionary anointed “fake news” its “word of the year.”

Although the term has been co-opted as a cudgel by Trumpites in their battles with so-called mainstream news organizations, “fake news” — that is, political satire packaged as information — was the province of Jon Stewart-quoting progressives at the peak of the George W. Bush years. To many in 2004, searing dispatches from “The Daily Show” (which billed itself as “the most trusted name in fake news”) and The Onion seemed like the best weapon against Washington spin and obfuscation. (Immediately after Bush’s re-election in 2004, for example, The Onion published an article titled “Nation’s Poor Win Election for Nation’s Rich.”)

Insincere Form of Flattery

In 2004, fake news had become the “the comic trope of the moment,” the Times article’s author, Warren St. John, wrote. Much of that could be chalked up to the rising cultural influence of “The Daily Show,” which had become something of a mirror-image Fox News for urban ironists ever since Stewart took over from Craig Kilborn as the host in 1999. (Stephen Colbert, a star correspondent, would push the envelope even further a year after the article was published, creating a fake news show, “The Colbert Report,” starring a fake newsman alter ego.)

This was also a peak era of influence for The Onion, which by 2004 had become a must-read for the president’s critics as it expanded its print edition to new cities. Other humorists, including Sacha Baron Cohen and Andy Borowitz, were also mining the faux-news format for laughs. Even mainstream organizations were dipping a toe. Episodes of ABC’s “Prime Time Live” closed with a musical rendition of satirical headlines. CNN’s “Larry King Live” hired comedian Mo Rocca as a wisecracking correspondent at political conventions.

The Big Picture

Much like the present political moment, there was no shortage of political rage in 2004. Democrats still felt cheated in the wake of the hanging chads of the 2000 election, and the Iraq War had turned into a bloody quagmire. In this atmosphere of simmering resentment, satirical news provided a release, as well as mass-market means for those who felt alienated by Bush-era policies to tweak the powers that be. This was also the last era before the internet and social media splintered U.S. news consumption habits, meaning there was still a recognizable institutional news voice that made sense to parody.

You Know, for Kids

The government was hardly the only target. By lampooning the staid, self-important tone of some traditional news broadcasts, satirists sought to upset legacy media conventions. “There’s some weird handcuffs on the mainstream news so that they feel that no matter what, they have to present both sides of the argument, even if one side of an argument is wrong,” Ben Karlin, an executive producer of “The Daily Show,” was quoted as saying in the article. To many, joke news reports helped take the air out of seemingly puffed-up news controversies like John Kerry’s swift boat kerfuffle. The down-is-up logic of satirical news found a home with the ever-alienated members of Generation X, who had come of age on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” and National Lampoon’s news parodies. Millennials, too, were just joining the audience, armed with their much-noted distrust of large institutions. Many seemed to agree with the old saying that “a joke is truth wrapped in a smile.” The article cited a study by Pew Research Center showing that 21 percent of people under 30 said they were learning their news about the 2004 presidential campaign from satirical sources like “The Daily Show,” up from 9 percent in 2000.

Fake News as Old News?

Eventually, the fake news media would face the same headwinds as the real news media. In 2013, after a period of declining advertising revenues, The Onion ceased publication of its 25-year-old print edition. They turned to new, digital targets instead: ClickHole, its parody of clickbait news aggregators, and “A Very Fatal Murder,” a new parody of “Serial"-style true crime podcasts. And, as with any revolution (the Soviets, the punks), the rebels eventually became the “establishment.” Stewart went on to host the Oscars. Steve Carell went from “The Daily Show” to became a sitcom star. But nothing went more establishment than the term itself. Last month, President Donald Trump himself hosted his own form of Oscars: The Fake News Awards, an anti-media project meant to tar news reports that he believed were unfair to him.

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