Anchorman, the new movie about fictional 1970s local TV anchor Ron Burgundy, made The New York Times’ Frank Rich laugh — at least until he realized that “TV news may be even more farcical now than it was then.”

The manic Burgundy’s main sin in the movie is to overplay the pregnancy of a panda at the San Diego Zoo, whereas, Rich writes, 30 years later “Our news culture, and not just TV news, muffed the run-up to a war.” He blames the failures on the “desire to gladhand the public [which] can overcome news judgment, especially on television.”

Since 9/11, this has meant wearing and hawking the flag (as long as it’s not draped on a coffin) — even to the point of dressing the NBC on-screen peacock icon in the stars and stripes for weeks. It has also meant not challenging a president as long as he’s riding high in the polls.

In the now legendary White House press conference of March 6, 2003, not a single reporter, electronic or print, asked a tough question about anything, including the president’s repeated conflating of 9/11 with the impending war on Iraq (eight times in that appearance alone). To some critics on the left, this Stepford Wives performance indicated a press corps full of conservatives, but I doubt it. This lock-step spectacle was at least in part an exercise of the Burgundy principle of pandering: don’t do anything that might make you less popular with your customers.

As Rich sees it, “Such is the vacuum now often left by the real news that [Jon] Stewart’s fake anchor [on The Daily Show] is increasingly drafted to do the job of a real one.” He cites Stewart’s enterprise in digging up a 2001 Meet the Press clip to rebut Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim on CNBC last month that he had “never said” there was a link between 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and Saddam Hussein’s government.

In their race to keep readers and viewers happy, writes Rich, news execs dish up daily diets of fluff, blurring the lines between Hollywood and the rest of the world.

(Well, not always, opines Campaign Desk. Consider this memo from Fox News Channel executive John Moody: “The President and the PM of Canada meet today and will make remarks at midday. Take the remarks, even if Jacko is singing on top of a truck with no pants on at the time.”)

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.