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Cable news is channeling 'The Daily Show' to cover the Trump era

The sass levels in this chyron and raised eyebrow are off the charts.
Source: CNN
The sass levels in this chyron and raised eyebrow are off the charts.

The year is 2017, and Jake Tapper has apparently had enough.

Over the past year, the CNN news anchor's coverage of the 2016 election and Donald Trump's ensuing presidency on The Lead has become increasingly and visibly impatient and horrified. On January 26, Tapper even addressed the warning by White House "chief strategist" Steve Bannon that the media should "keep its mouth shut" with a dismissive chuckle and a single, withering word: "No."

It was a brief, definitive rejection — and not for nothing, one with some impeccable comic timing.

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But it wasn't the first time Tapper had displayed such a capacity for humor, or a willingness to suggest that he has few f**ks left to give. In fact, he's been embracing more of that dry delivery with every passing day of America's ongoing political circus — a type of delivery that, historically, has been much more easily associated with satirical news programming like The Daily Show than CNN.

However, if you take a close look at cable news outside of Tapper's The Lead, The Daily Show's influence is easy to trace, with several shows in today's 24-hour news cycle drawing inspiration from their satirical counterpart, whether they realize it or not.

The Daily Show's sensibility aligns perfectly with Jake Tapper's clear impatience with the news he's reporting

Take a look at this clip from Tapper's January 31 show, in which he played a winking straight man responding to footage of White House press secretary Sean Spicer incoherently insisting that Trump's executive order on immigration isn't a "ban," despite Trump himself using that term over and over again:

"It seems odd though," Tapper mused with faux concern. "If you object to the term, you shouldn't use it … right?"

Cue a clip of Spicer on ABC, referring to the order as "a 90-day ban" … followed by another clip of him calling it a ban … and another one.

The edit of this segment is meant to show us exactly how little room Spicer has to talk around the truth, and that Tapper isn't fooled. It's so sharply pointed that you'd be stopped from boarding a plane if you had this meticulously weaponized editing in your carryon.

And it's far from an anomaly for Tapper these days, a fact that Daily Show alum and Full Frontal host Samantha Bee took notice of back in December when she said that Tapper's take-no-sh*t cadence made him "a hero who has risen from the aimless, post-apocalyptic landscape of Trump coverage."

"By and large, this Daily Show-ification of cable news is most often seen on left-leaning networks or with more liberal-skewing anchors, who are presumably experiencing the most steady, wonky disbelief in response to the new administration."

At the time, Bee might've seen something of herself or her fellow Daily Show alum John Oliver in Tapper's acidic delivery; today, his use of ironic montages probably looks familiar, too. It's as if Tapper is filtering The Lead through The Daily Show's sensibility. It's pretty clear that he's fed up with the pretense of beating around the bush — and he's not the only news anchor who's doing so.

Cable news has started taking more cues from The Daily Show's hyperbolic approach to the headlines, rather than the other way around

When The Daily Show debuted in 1996 under host Craig Kilborn, it was billed as a parody of cable news shows. But under Jon Stewart, who took over as host in 1999, The Daily Show quickly pioneered its own style of news delivery, albeit one with a lot more dick jokes than your average broadcast. These days, The Daily Show relies on research and facts to produce its news segments and inform its interviews, putting just as much effort as traditional news programs into both sourcing its stories and determining which topics and headlines deserve the most weight on any given day.

Historically, the main difference between cable news and The Daily Show has been that the latter lives on Comedy Central, and accordingly, all its stories are delivered by comedians who are allowed — and encouraged — to lace the facts with an undercurrent of, "Can you believe this sh*t?" For so long, The Daily Show was essentially cable news's unrestrained id, free to openly mock and gawk at whatever it finds ridiculous.

But now we're seeing more and more of that approach on cable, and it's easy to understand why: The prospect — and then reality — of President Donald Trump essentially put the 24-hour new cycle on an aggressive round of steroids. Trump's willingness to dodge and warp the truth, antagonize the press, and laugh in the face of accepted norms has significantly changed the game. So maybe it's fitting that cable news has started mimicking The Daily Show rather than the other way around.

By and large, this Daily Show-ification of cable news is most often seen on left-leaning networks or with more liberal-skewing anchors, who are presumably experiencing the most steady, wonky disbelief in response to the new administration.

But even the conservative-skewing Fox News, whether consciously or not, will sometimes embrace The Daily Show's techniques. This is most often seen in its "man on the street" segments that send a correspondent out into the real world to collect unwittingly hilarious soundbites. Fox host Jesse Watters recently landed his own show within that genre, which — unlike the Fox and Friends model of sporadically interviewing people outside the studio — follows right in The Daily Show's tightly edited footsteps. Watters's interview segments are slickly produced and have clear themes and narratives, just like the segments helmed by The Daily Show's field correspondents. (Now, if only he would stop mistaking repeated stereotypes for comedy, he might be onto something.)

The cable news host who might rely most heavily on The Daily Show's style is MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who frequently uses Daily Show-esque editing techniques, sarcastic finger quotes, and overall quippy presentations of damning news footage to emphasize her points.

While Maddow has always delivered her more critical op-ed segments with the kind of wry horror Jon Stewart perfected during his Daily Show tenure, her use of that approach became particularly obvious and even more blatantly gobsmacked in the run-up to the November 2016 election. In October, as Trump's infamous "grab 'em by the pussy" comments were starting to make headlines, Maddow took a moment to look directly into the camera and remind her audience with a calm, but panicked smile, "you're awake, by the way."

For now, it seems as though an unprecedented period of news has inspired an unprecedented lack of filter in many cable news anchors. At a time when it feels like a huge story is breaking every other hour — all while the president and his advisers refer to the media as "the opposition party" — it's becoming harder and harder for journalists like Maddow and Tapper to contain their open shock and disdain.

Put more simply: No, they can't believe this sh*t, and that feeling isn't subtext anymore.

Commentary by Caroline Framke, the culture writer and "Chief Rihanna Enthusiast" at Vox. Follow her on Twitter @carolinefranke.

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