By: Andrew D. Gutshall
Satirical news is an extremely valuable tool that can encourage young people to get involved in political activities and movements. Television and social media are the most popular sources for news since they allow for the fastest updates of events across the globe. Instantaneous access to information has drawn young voters into the political realm. In order to maintain young adult involvement, comedy was incorporated into current events and news. This worked incredibly well. A causal relationship was formed between ideology and target audience. This paper will explore the relationship between political satire, traditional news, and real-world politics.
John Oliver appears every Sunday on premium cable’s HBO Network with his show, Last Week Tonight. Hasan Minhaj appears every Sunday with a newly uploaded episode to Netflix of his program, Patriot Act. Four nights a week Trevor Noah can be found hosting The Daily Show on Comedy Central. These are just a few examples of current television and streaming programs that are available for viewing. In addition, there are many television programs that are not solely for political satire but often incorporate it into their shows. Examples of these shows include Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and Conan. Nearly every late-night television show plays into political satire by using humor to explain and/or mock political actions. These satirical news outlets have an interesting and complicated history regarding traditional news and politics. However, they still have many responsibilities because of their effectiveness in reaching an untapped audience through an accessible message.
The Legacy of Modern Satire
Prior to Trevor Noah becoming the host of The Daily Show, the show was hosted by long time comedian, Jon Stewart. Young adults have shown an increased preference for news satire over traditional media outlets. They have traded in the likes of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC for the likes of Patriot Act, Last Week Tonight, and The Daily Show. Exploring the relationship between traditional sources and comedy news is worthwhile.
Jon Stewart was well received by his peers in both news and comedy. However, the relationship between satirical news and traditional has not always been positive. In 2009, Stewart famously ignited a feud with Fox News. Stewart had agreed openly with a comment made by Fox anchor, Bernard Goldberg that the mainstream media unfairly criticizes and generalizes the radical actions committed by the Tea Party (Comedy Central, 2010). The conflict came when Stewart mentioned that Fox News has a heavy tendency to do the same thing to left-wing extremism (Comedy Central, 2010). Goldberg conceded the point made by Stewart, but demanded Stewart be as tough with his liberal guests as he is with Fox News and conservative guests on his show (Comedy Central, 2010). From this came Stewart’s famous quote, “You can’t blame me for not being fair and balanced. That’s your slogan, which, by the way, you never follow” (Comedy Central, 2010). This raises the crucial question of the responsibility of comedy news to balanced reporting (Jones and Baym, 2010)?
Responsibilities of Satirical News
The restraints and requirements for programs like Stewart’s are not as strict as those who present themselves as pure information such as CNN and Fox News. However, the better political satire shows are much more reliant on facts. After all, comedy is funnier when it is more recognizable as truth. In a 2004 incident on CNN’s now defunct talk-show Crossfire, Stewart harshly criticized the show and the network’s tendency to perpetuate heavy political partisanship by refereeing and facilitating screaming matches between so-called experts of opposing ideologies (Begala, Carvilli, Carlson and Novak, 2004). Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala retaliated by saying that Stewart was soft on the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry when he was on an episode of The Daily Show (Begala et al., 2004). Stewart, of course, had this response, “I didn’t realize that…the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity…. If your idea of confronting me is that I don’t ask hard-hitting enough news questions, we’re in bad shape fellows” (Begala et al., 2004). Clearly, Stewart acknowledges his show’s bias towards liberal and Democratic tendencies. However, that doesn’t necessarily indicate a bad thing. The show is honest about its ideology and does not pretend to be bipartisan like every major news outlet mentioned earlier. At least consumers and viewers can trust satirical news outlets to be honest about their feelings instead of pretending to be unbiased.
Stewart has been voted the most trusted newsperson despite his pleadings that he is a comic whose show follows a puppet show on Comedy Central (Poniewozik, 2015). In light of this, how can the audience reconcile Stewart and the others as legitimate journalists who just happen to tell the news with humor? There certainly is value in doing so considering that hosts like Minhaj, Stewart, and Oliver encourage their viewers to engage in rational political discourse through humor and satire as they search for the truth. Traditional news has failed miserably in providing this discourse.
The New Wave of Journalism
Journalism and bipartisanship have become deeply estranged from each other in the post-Walter Cronkite era. Mainstream news has become increasingly “packaged to sell” as corporate interests have outweighed watchdog journalism that holds elites accountable. News used to be about hard facts. Now it is a contorted blend of opinion and fact. It serves private profit more than public service and is sensationalized for entertainment rather than providing information to the public.
This has been widely apparent with issues such as the Iraq War, the 2008 economic crisis, and the 2009 healthcare debate. In all of these, there was a deep need for critical information and productive debate. Instead, the major and most influential outlets offered distortion, spectacle, story spinning, and red herring stories. The argument is not that journalism used to be good and now it is garbage, but rather The Daily Show was a flagship for a new era and new form of journalism. Colbert and Stewart both have a unique way of shifting and managing the dialogue of their interviews resulting in a greater appearance of civil discourse and calmness. One could argue that they seem much more honest and authentic. Of course, the shows are highly stylized for the entertainment aspect of infotainment. Regardless, audiences see them as honest and authentic because they are not burdened with the traditions, convention, and predictable flows of dialogue that consume mainstream news. Some mainstream news outlets have attempted infotainment type journalism with shows such as D. L. Hughley Breaks the News and Huckabee. Hughley is a well-known stand-up comic who received a weekend slot on CNN as the network tried to engage in Stewart’s model of journalism and news. Hughley’s show was a massive flop and cancelled after only a year on the air. Huckabee is the conservative, Fox News counterpart to D.L. Hughley’s show. Despite a failed run for president on the Republican ticket, Mike Huckabee still has his hour time slot on Fox News. Clearly, we as an audience must accept the cold truth that information and entertainment are closely connected. (Who Is Fact Checking the Media Fact Checkers, 2018).
However, this infotainment is not what Stewart and other pure satirical news shows represent. Political news comedy is profit driven as is the current model of traditional news. The Daily Show must make a profit to avoid being cancelled by Comedy Central just as Fox News must make a profit in order to stay on the air. The difference is that The Daily Show and its counterparts are not as pressured to make what they are reporting as interesting. Major network news coverage must be flashy and engaging to interest viewers in news that could normally be regarded as uninteresting. Comedy news has an easier job of telling the news in a comedic manner through any creative method possible.
Viewers can affirm their opinions and views in comedy show conversations much better than they can viewing the yelling matches on shows like Crossfire. The weaving together of pop culture, politics, and sensationalism with hard facts represents a new way of furthering the old agenda of the media. This new solid blend of the two worlds is a return to watchdog journalism. Stewart and company are a necessary reaction to the post-Cronkite era. The new era of political comedy answers the question, “who watches the watchers?” Stewart’s brand is watchdog journalism that can ensure journalists stay legitimate and calling those journalists out when they are not upholding the standards of Cronkite journalism.
In the early years of the United States, the newspapers were extremely partisan, some owned and operated by the political parties themselves. Newspapers were only distributed to the wealthiest of men because they were the only literate people. When production costs were lowered by new technologies such as the movable-type printing press and cheaper methods of producing parchment, the newspapers of the revolutionary era became self-sufficient and no longer needed wealthy benefactors like the political parties. News outlets went through various changes since those revolutionary times. The watchdog era was where the news sources’ responsibility was to hold the government accountable to the electorate. That watchdog era has seemingly died since entering the 2000s. Instead, we have felt the increased polarization of the news outlets along party lines. In recent times the increasingly alienated and moderate audience can find escapism within political satire news such as The Daily Show and Patriot Act. These shows help viewers comprehend news that CNN and Fox News obnoxiously presents to their audience. One may think of satirical shows as a tool used to breakdown the fallacies promoted by the mainstream media. Jon Stewart is considered to be the new Carl Bernstein, who was one of the journalists famous for breaking President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate Hotel break-in.
Facilitating the Information Exchange
What do The Daily Show, Patriot Act, and Full Frontal have that CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC do not? The answer is laughter. The presence of laughter has the power to transform a serious political discussion into entertainment. Proponents of the new era of journalism represented by The Daily Show argue that the presence of laughter and comedy facilitates hard discussion. Humor is the central remedy to the hyper-partisan, deeply divisive politics present in our traditional news. It puts entertainment as a substitute for news without sacrificing the knowledge that might be acquired by the general audience. From this notion was born a criticism that infotainment becomes the art of softball questions for politicians and elites. While the difficulty of questioning may fluctuate on The Daily Show, much like Jon Stewart had alluded to in his fight with Bernard Goldberg of Fox News, The Daily Show and its counterparts are no less likely than traditional media to throw their favored candidates and politicians some underhanded-lob questions. In fact, some of the most difficult moments for John McCain during his 2008 run for president came when he was on The View and The Late Show. These infotainment shows hit McCain with some surprisingly tough political questions for which he was not prepared, and ultimately did some damage to his campaign.
A possible critique of political satire as a method of change is the idea of perceived vs. actual effectiveness. The question here is whether political satire truly initiates change or just appears to incite change. In response to this critique, we must look at satire in terms of a spectrum. In example, Bill Maher of the HBO political talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, is well-known to have a significant degree of rhetorical flourish in his material. On the other end of this spectrum, are works with stronger fact bases that are more rooted in research. Examples of the more grounded sources include John Oliver and Hasan Minhaj. Their programs involve massive amounts of research before being aired. They also provide their sources on screen, allowing the viewer to fact-check their work. This is why Last Week Tonight and Patriot Act only air episodes weekly. Obviously, not all satire is created equal. But then not all traditional news has the same level of integrity. Fox News and MSNBC reporting may be considered questionable but are more reliable than The Daily Mail and Breitbart. In the same way, Last Week Tonight and Patriot Act are more credible than Bill Maher’s material.
Satirical TV news is a stronghold for liberal ideals and the Democratic Party. In recent times the media is more recently considered to be more liberal. This bleeds over into satirical news that maintains the same political leaning. The message of satire is deeply political in nature, but the mode and methodology are not serious in nature. The argument that satire distorts and weakens the messages Oliver or Stewart deliver does not quite seem fair. Consider this: Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC have all been dragged through the mud by PolitiFact and other fact-checking services. This is an interesting trend created by media outlets who tend to fact-check themselves with other media outlets. One should recognize that other media outlets also use journalists who are just as vulnerable to mistakes.
The next major element worth examining is the concept of negativity as a result of cynicism. During the 2004 election, viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were subjected to jokes about the Democratic candidate John Kerry and Republican incumbent George W. Bush. Viewers of the two programs reported to have an increased level of cynicism about both candidates. They reported greater levels of skepticism and negativity toward Bush than Kerry. However, this is a reasonable result considering the confirmed understanding of each show’s political leaning and the influence of outside forces such as the “Florida Election Debacle”. The Florida election debacle refers to the election of 2000 when a controversial intervention and ruling by the US Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore resulted in Bush winning the twenty-five Electoral College votes from Florida to become the president-elect. As a result, many viewers had stronger and more negative reactions towards Bush in comparison to Kerry (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008).
Negativity, while certainly a powerful emotion in people, is also a product of perception. As a result, the difference between soft news and hard news becomes so much more important to the necessity of satirical news and the common understanding of it. Soft news is more likened to daytime talk shows and the watered-down human-interest stories they tend to promote. George W. Bush appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote himself by discussing soft news topics such as his family and personal life. Someone having little information on politics and does not consume a significant amount of hard news is likely to make their choice of candidate solely based on the human-interest pieces. Not having knowledge of a candidate’s stance on political issues and solely basing their political choices on human-interest stories is not beneficial to the election process. Television programs that entertain as well as inform are critical in attracting low information voters, allowing them to make smart election decisions without having to watch late-night news shows. Satirical news is a necessity in preserving the foundation of democracy the United States is built upon.
The Colbert Bump
Has satirical news had a positive influence on politicians and their political agendas? The notorious “Colbert Bump” indicates that the answer is yes. The Colbert Report’s host, Stephen Colbert, claimed that any guest who appeared on the show received a spike in popularity. Is there any truthfulness to this bump? Mike Huckabee was polling at 1% during his presidential run prior to appearing on the show (Fowler, 2008). After his appearance, his ratings jumped to 3% (Fowler, 2008). Do Colbert’s sarcastic claims that he made Huckabee’s numbers jump “300%” take away the value of his influence or does it feed into Colbert’s power (Fowler, 2008)? Colbert also gives himself credit for doubling support for Ron Paul, which rose from 1% to 2% after his appearance on The Colbert Report (Fowler, 2008). Several other potential candidates received this bump in polling numbers as well (Fowler, 2008). Better polling numbers can result in better endorsement deals and more money. This correlation was proven to be a bipartisan affair despite Colbert’s leftward leaning. Both Republicans and Democrats seemed to get a bump of popularity after appearing on Colbert’s show. However, the numbers don’t reflect evenly for both major party candidates. Democratic candidates appeared to benefit from Colbert’s interviews more than Republicans (Fowler, 2008). Colbert’s show was most involved in the 2006 election. In that election 89% of the candidates interviewed by Colbert were the incumbent (Fowler, 2008). It is well known that the incumbent has an advantage during election season. Thus, that the election winners who were interviewed by Colbert beat their opponents by an average of 34% is not surprising (Fowler, 2008). One of the reasons for the bump phenomenon is the elite and high political knowledge audience attracted by Colbert’s show. The approximately 1.7 million viewers may be those who are highly motivated by politics (Fowler, 2008). These viewers may later contribute to the candidate after his/her appearance on the show. This increased monetary flow for candidates has been a major attraction for those who appeared on the show in hope of boosting their numbers (Fowler, 2008). If one believes that the bump is real, then Colbert offered some level of influence and power. It is clear that this version of satirical news had a strong influence on its viewers. A physical representation of the Colbert Bump is shown below (Fowler, 2008).
The final factor to be considered in this analysis is a comprehensive breakdown of demographics for shows like The Daily Show. This will show how satirical news shows can reach traditionally untapped audiences. The most common age group to watch The Daily Show is young Americans ages 18 to 24 years old. That demographic consisted of 47.7% of the show’s audience. 54% of young adults in the 18-24 years old category admitted to learning and receiving information from shows like The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live. In fact, 25% of The Daily Show’s audience admitted to not paying any attention to hard, traditional news sources. Only 23% of The Daily Show viewers admitted to closely following hard news. These alarming statistics make satirical news shows so important. They have an increased role in influencing the electorate. Thus, they have an increased responsibility to the truth and the news.
This study by Holbert, Tchernev, Walther, Esralew, and Benski further confirmed greater rates of cynicism in its audiences toward candidates (2013). This distrust and doubt in the candidates could spill over to the news media and to the election system. But how much cynicism is too much? When does it become a threat to the way of life and status quo (Holbert, Tchernev, Walther, Esralew, & Benski, 2013)? The study confidently proved that The Daily Show effectively lowered people’s opinions of political candidates when controlling for party identification and party identity (Hobert et al., 2013). Exposure to the CBS Evening News created no negative impact on the viewers in the experiment (Hobert et al., 2013). Researchers went on to prove that the negative emotions surrounding candidates spilled over to the news media. That could be blamed on Stewart’s famous wars with major media members. However, researchers could not prove the audience to have distrust in the election system as a whole. Perhaps that is because The Daily Show operates within the government system. Stewart often questioned the individuals in office, but rarely challenged the system.
A number of topics were explored and discussed in this analysis of the value of satirical news. A variety of political satire television options were discussed and compared to one another, indicating that not all satire sources are created equal. Shows that derive their content from research and facts rather than emotionally charged material are more successful and valid for informational purposes. Satirical news serves the purpose of competing with the mainstream media and holding them accountable for their actions. It also motivates young voters to get involved in politics. Satirical news shows are a bridge between soft news and hard news, making the uninformed voter aware of political issues and events. However, with this comes responsibility since satire can negatively influence viewer attitudes. In the same way, it can positively boost candidates’ ratings and support through playful dialogue. It is not true soft news and can hurt political careers; just ask John McCain. Satirical news has earned a place in the media landscape as a valuable tool to handle traditional news through humor without sacrificing knowledge.
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