A lot of young folks these days learn about current affairs by watching entertainment shows, not by watching broadcast news or reading newspapers. Instead of just lamenting this information gap, Stephen Lee decided to do something to help bridge it.
Finally, there is vindication for anyone whose parents ever griped about television not being educational. Lee has come up with new kind of Internet news site designed for television aficionados. He founded FootnoteTV.com in February 2002. Lee, a former Chicago Tribune reporter-turned-New York lawyer, built a site that provides context and background to current events mentioned on such shows as “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “The West Wing,” and “Boston Legal.” The site’s tag line: “Examining the issues behind your favorite TV shows, episode by episode.”
DANA GREENLEE: Im fascinated by your efforts to dissect television shows at your Web site. Give us a high-level view of what are trying to do?
STEPHEN LEE: I am a former journalist and I was looking at just how much TV shows were based on news and current events these days. I was talking to my friends and siblings a few years ago and realized there was this great potential here for analyzing and doing serious journalism and using TV shows as the big hook because people are interested enough to watch something on “West Wing” or “Law and Order” the night before and would like to talk about this stuff the next morning.
GREENLEE: What was the true catalyst for this site?
LEE: I remember sitting with my two younger siblings on Christmas Day 2000 and they were talking about “Saturday Night Live.” Theyd seen a sketch on the first Al Gore / George W. Bush debate. Even though they hadnt seen the debate itself or knew what the exact issues were, they knew what all the jokes were. I remember thinking that it might be a good idea to actually try coming to them and saying that lockbox joke was actually about Social Security and the budget surplus that we had at the time. Thats what got this all rolling.
GREENLEE: Basically you fact check or provide additional resources for people to learn about an issue on a TV show.
LEE: An example is how a “Law and Order” episode is inspired by an event that happened five months ago that you can kind of recall, but might not remember exactly what happened. The new movie “The Interpreter” the big part of the plot centers around a real-life analogy that happened a few weeks back when the U.S. Security Council decided to refer a matter to the International criminal court for the first time. (Lee also runs a site called FootnoteMedia.com, where he comments and analyzes movies.)
GREENLEE: It seems like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” is the one show thats really the strongest as far as discussing issues and creating a controversy. I would think that “The Daily Show” is just terrific fodder for you.
LEE: I do footnote “The Daily Show” every day. A lot of what they do is very accurate, but a lot of it isnt necessarily complete and what I do is help put things a little more in perspective. You can go to the full content of Bushs speech that they are taking a little excerpt from to give it the proper context.
GREENLEE: Are you serving a fact-check purpose for the shows?
LEE: Thats part of it. Its fine for the shows to take some liberties. Its fine for “Law and Order” to show a judge making decisions that a real-life judge might try a little harder to avoid making. Its fine for “The Daily Show” to push the joke a little further than maybe they should given the full facts, but its fine for what they do and I hope the site helps correct that a little bit.
Lees sites are http://www.FootnoteTV.com, http://www.FootnoteMedia.com where he analyzes movies, and http://www.FootnoteFahrenheit.com, which looks at the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 911.
You can hear the full audio interview with Stephen Lee at WebTalkRadio.com.