Jesters Do Oft Prove Prophets

Daniel Sampson

The continued popularity of "fake" news.

 

The influence of political commentary is nothing new. Radio and TV analysts, by virtue of their position and exposure, have always helped to mold public opinion. From Edward R. Murrow's dogged pursuit of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950's, to the relentless coverage of Bill Clinton's indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky forty years later, our conception of current affairs has undeniably been shaped by them. Over the last 10 years, a new crop of observers have put their mark on political discourse. The insights of comedians like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Lewis Black have, if not supplanted, then at least competed for authority with their more serious counterparts.

 

A comedian's stock and trade is social parody; they make their living lampooning the quirks and kinks of the human condition and, as a subdivision of that broad topic, politics has always provided them a wealth of material. George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Al Franken (before his election to the Senate in 2008) made careers out of treading this fertile ground.

 

Unlike their modern peers, the likes of Carlin and Hicks were firmly confined to the comedy world and, whilst they gave their audiences food for thought, their influence did not extend far beyond those boundaries. Now, however, a select group of political comedians have a legitimate (and legitimized) platform from which they make their commentary. Their reach goes far past the walls of a smoky comedy clubs or a one-off TV special. These figures are not actually making policy, but they are affecting public reaction to and opinion of it.

 

The Daily Show, to take the most prominent example, runs every day (the name is a dead giveaway) and studies show that viewers are not just tuning in for the laughs. People are keeping abreast of the news, and watching the show to get Jon Stewart's take on everyday events.

 

This phenomenon is likely rooted in the viewing public's frustration with the overt bias in the coverage provided by television news. Various major cable news channels like MSNBC and  Fox  all take positions on either side of the ideological line. With each of the aforementioned channels, it is often difficult to discern where the hard news ends and commentary begins.

 

A lack of impartiality is an issue in itself, but it becomes a greater problem when compounded by cable news (and to an ever-increasing extent, the Internet) readily providing fodder for consumers who are actively searching out sources that align with their own beliefs. The result is mutual reinforcement and the conferral of legitimacy on opinions that their viewers already hold to be true. For the core audience this symbiosis is ideal, but it is disagreeable for those seeking objective reporting.

 

Politics as a topic is ripe for satire precisely because politicians take themselves so seriously. There is no easier target for parody than the man who desperately wants you to believe in his earnestness. The duplicitous senator or congressman who pounds his chest -- and often a certain holy book -- in defense of family values while engaging in an extra-marital affair has become so commonplace that it no longer takes us by surprise. One treats the news of such a 'scandal' with no more than a weary shrug of the shoulders.

 

Perhaps there's something to the notion that all we can do is laugh in reaction to our representative's squalid behavior. Humor has always been a useful weapon with which one fight can oppression or exploitation and mocking your tormentor is an effective way to seize a measure of his power. Stewart and Maher use wry humor to make legitimate points and expose the mendacity of politicians and pundits alike.

 

Stephen Colbert’s immensely popular show is set up to appear to be a conservative counterweight to Stewart’s program, but any viewer with even the slightest appreciation of irony can immediately tell that the entire point is to mock the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. Colbert’s caricature of the hysterical  right-wing talking head goes to ever more absurd lengths to find evidence of left-wing misdeeds, a liberal bias in mass media, and other common criticisms espoused by conservative pundits. Conceptually, this is more advanced than regular satire: the joke is on them whilst appearing, cleverly, to be on him.

 

There does appear to be a commonality amongst the most successful of these commentators, too.  They generally lean left politically, and there is a notable lack of influential satirists on the right. Perhaps only Dennis Miller would count as a conservative peer of Stewart and Maher, and he does not enjoy the kind of exposure afforded to either of the latter. This in itself is a point of interest -- is it that Miller's material doesn't speak to the generation of fans so dedicated to the Daily Show, or could it be that the conservative pundits just aren't very funny?

 

 

If the former is true, it’s probably related to a well-documented generational divide -- people tend to be more liberal in their younger years. The 2007 study from the Pew Research Council, for example, found that a significant percentage of viewers in the 18 - 25 age bracket were using The Daily Show as their main news source. They had eschewed network and cable news in favor of what is, at its heart, a comedy show, citing the unreliability and obvious agenda of those traditional sources as their reason for doing so.

 

An argument could be made for latter proposition, too, and it's worth exploring. At their core, the preoccupations of the right and left are the same; both parties want freedom for the American people, but each party appears to want a different flavor of it. Conservatives are mostly concerned with economic and financial liberty. The left, on the other hand, is primarily interested in social freedom. When placed side by side, the material available to those on the left is no richer than that which is available to those on the right.

 

The question then becomes about the policymakers themselves. Is there more hypocrisy on the right, or is it that what the two parties say about themselves makes one target easier than the other? For decades Republicans have positioned themselves as champions of moral rectitude, so when one of them is caught in a compromising spot with someone other than their spouse, it is much more satisfying to expose them. The Daily Show has an exceptional research team and Stewart's monologues, in which he focuses on just such sanctimony, are almost always accompanied by video evidence of the person in question saying one thing and then doing quite another once the cameras are off.

 

To return to the predilections of the viewers for a moment, one could make the argument that the enduring popularity of modern political comedians could be viewed as an indictment of the electorate. On the one hand, the voting public wants to stay abreast of current affairs and feel engaged with the world around them, but on the other, they want to be shielded from the harsh and often depressing reality of domestic and global politics. By co-opting the biting satire of Stewart or Maher or Black, they take back some of the power from those who seek rip them off.

 

This generation is perhaps more receptive to the delivery of news as more than just straight reportage. They have grown up in an age where the line between news and entertainment has blurred, and the emphasis is on glorification rather than a sober retelling of events. Headlines are more important than the depth of the story that follows, so they are comfortable receiving news packaged in a less solemn fashion.

 

It would be inaccurate to say that an endorsement from Stewart or Maher or Colbert is the kiss of life for any candidate's aspirations (nor, for that matter, their disapproval the kiss of death), but with more and more people, particularly the younger generation, turning to these shows as their de facto news source, there is no doubt that their influence is every bit as potent as any other.

Photo of Stephen Colbert: Comedy Central

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