It was during the spring of last year that, through a series of fortunate events, I was able to secure an invitation to dinner with famed journalist Bob Woodward. Awaiting Woodward’s arrival, I sat with the five other students, two alumni, and one events coordinator in attendance, the lot of us anxiously preparing questions for his arrival. Woodward graciously received the litany of inquiries thrown at him, but posed a question of his own as the night wore on: “So, tell me – where do you get your news?”
We went around in a circle, all of us offering different sources, everyone desperate to rattle off a publication more obscure or dignified than the last. In the end, the list included all of the usual suspects: the New York Times, The Economist, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, to name a few. When we were finished, Woodward smiled quizzically and responded with another question: “How many of you watch Jon Stewart?” First the undergraduates raised their hands, then the alumni and finally – and sheepishly – the events coordinator.
The question was posed by an icon of American journalism and answered by a troupe of university students and affiliates whose ages spanned three generations. All of us admitted to being avid followers, if not fans, of Jon Stewart, and when pressed on the matter, most confessed a similar proclivity for Stephen Colbert. Such is the ubiquitous influence of satirical news on today’s political discourse, a time in which many Americans would prefer to receive their news ironically rather than in earnest.
The 21st century is witnessing the rise of political satire to a place of unprecedented social prominence. Stewart now averages over two million viewers per night, a larger audience than any show on Fox News, excluding The O’Reilly Factor. In the last decade, Colbert has testified before Congress, hosted President Barack Obama on his program, and created his own political action committee. In addition, programs such as Real Time with Bill Maher and Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” enjoy tremendous success. While it is blatantly apparent that embellished news and political satire are on the rise, it’s less easy to understand why this paradigm shift is occurring and what effects it will have on American political culture.
Undoubtedly, the success of unconventional news outlets can be traced back to the public’s dissatisfaction with traditional news, specifically the cable news channels. Indeed, it seems to have become the modus operandi of modern news outlets to hyperbolize and sensationalize, to turn politics into theater. The twenty-four hour news cycle has created a dynamic in which it has become necessary to spotlight every occurrence of political bickering, every awkward gaffe, every faint trace of disagreement that arises on Capitol Hill. Unsurprisingly, the public has become desensitized to the antics of the media and jaded to the melodramatic titles and technologies used in an attempt to jazz up even the most mundane stories. The public has come to feel that the popular media is inherently biased, condescending and misleading.
The rise of the comedian in news is accompanied by the fall of the traditional news anchor. However, what remains to be answered is whether the movement of political satire to the forefront of our national political dialogue is a phenomenon to be cheered or bemoaned. Certainly, it presents problems.
One major issue arising from the increasing influence of satire is that comedic sources may discourage genuine political engagement. For Stewart, Colbert and Maher, incompetent elected officials, bumbling bureaucrats and wildly gesticulating news commentators harping on President Obama’s birthplace all make for good material, and the ability to isolate sound bites affords these satirists the opportunity to highlight inanity where it exists. But as readers will know, our elected officials are not all ungainly imbeciles, and our political process is not quite the farce political satire portrays it to be. What is cause for concern is the fact that constantly and exclusively watching political satire prompts the public to feel even more dejected about the status of our political process, less respectful towards the efforts of American leaders, and less inclined to participate in reformation efforts.
In addition, news serves a distinct role in society that cannot be adequately replaced by political comedy or social commentary. The line between satire and news has blurred with the ballooning viewership of political satire rivaling that of traditional news outlets. However, one must constantly bear in mind the different intentions of journalists and satirists. It is the responsibility of news agencies to present a balanced, if still opinionated, perspective of our political landscape in the most effective, thought-provoking way possible. Ideally, news agencies strive to report matters of significance in a timely manner, perhaps with commentary that aids the viewers’ awareness and understanding. News agencies employ a vast array of personnel and resources to provide audiences with a clear picture. Most important, they do all of this in real time, or as close to it as they can get. Such an extensive litany of functions could not be performed by an ensemble of satirists, nor is it their intention to do so. It is the satirists’ job to mock news, not report it. Subjectivity as a means of generating widespread appeal is the name of the game; journalistic research, development and verification of material fall to the wayside.
However, with increasing popularity has come rising expectations, calls for impartiality and the claim that by holding rallies or conducting serious interviews, these satirists are somehow assuming social responsibility and henceforth must uphold a higher standard of conduct and accept the culpability of shaping their viewers’ political opinions. Thus, the line that would normally divide satire and news has been smudged on one hand by the public’s disillusionment with traditional news sources and on the other by its rising expectations for those incisive comedians whom they now prefer to “real” news organizations. In their sensationalism, news organizations have moved closer to the comedy programs, and in their growing ambition and influence, satirists have inadvertently developed into something resembling the subject of their mockery; they have become, in part, news programs.
What is to be done about this confusion of roles, this identity crisis occurring in modern reporting? Perhaps some clarity will come when news organizations arrive at the realization that they cannot and should not compete with comedians as sources of entertainment. Ultimately, news should be dignified, and those who present it must see themselves as arbiters of information rather than performers. When individual news stations hope to enhance viewership, they should do so by providing more engaging commentary and evocative debate rather than tawdry bickering or frivolous touch-screen technologies.
On the other hand, such a charge is hopelessly idealistic and relieves actual viewers of the personal responsibility needed to correct the declining trajectory of modern news. Ideally, viewers would stop watching the news when it degenerates into querulous theatrics, though that doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead of viewers being repelled by the histrionic exploits of the media, they demand serious news from new sources and, arguably, the wrong ones. There are now claims that satirists – Stewart in particular – should compensate the public for the illegitimacy they highlight in the mainstream media. Indeed, many seem to expect Stewart to conduct more serious interviews and even to help solve political issues, as if it were somehow his responsibility to make up for the declining state of American journalism simply because he has a talent for pointing out its decrepitude. Ultimately, these criticisms and demands come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role Stewart plays in American society.
Jon Stewart is a comedian. The subject of his comedy is politics. Before Stewart made a living by satirizing the political process, he performed comedy routines centered on his Bar Mitzvah, his parents and his upbringing. Keeping Stewart in his proper context allows us to situate him on the spectrum of social commentary, which runs from comedy to journalism.
On the comedy end, we find Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. These comedians each have valuable and witty social insights of their own; however they present no overarching narrative to their comedy, and their sole goal is to induce laughter from the audience. If one is compelled to employ analytical thought during their programs, such a reaction comes secondary to laughter. Stewart serves a slightly different function – his purpose is to make people think and laugh. He strives to present a narrative of absurdity in politics to make his audience more aware. Thus, Stewart does not belong squarely in the category of “comedian”.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are icons of journalism like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. These men were real journalists whose function in society was to inform their audience by reporting unique facts and providing distinct insights that could not be found elsewhere. Their trademark was truth, and they were averse to bias and ideology. One modern-day example of this type of journalist is Anderson Cooper. Stewart does not belong in this group because he is a satirist; his function is to examine the political process rather than shape it, and he conducts these examinations through the medium of comedy. Murrow and Cronkite attempted to shape the conceptions of their audience through hard-hitting, assiduous journalism; Stewart hopes to make his audience think twice about their political convictions by satirizing the corruption and hypocrisy in government and media.
In a recent interview with Chris Wallace, Stewart confessed that his loftiest ambition is to resemble Mark Twain. When Wallace retorted that Twain held a substantial amount of political sway over the public, Stewart responded by asking, “but was that his main thrust?” As Stewart put it, “I’m a comedian first. That’s not only.’”
On this continuum, Stewart falls somewhere between Seinfeld and Murrow, and there he sits in the company of men like Twain and Oscar Wilde. Each of these men was first and foremost an author, before social commentator, and they experimented in literature outside of the realm of satire or social commentary, writing plays and poems that were distinct from their social criticisms. Similarly, Stewart was a stand-up comedian making jokes about a range of topics before he was the iconic satirist he has become, and no amount of viewership or influence is going to be able to pull Stewart completely out of comedy and mold him into a serious media gatekeeper.
Ultimately, the public will have to take responsibility for the news. News organizations respond to ratings, and if people continue to silently condone the decline of valid journalism, then the blurring of lines between satire and journalism is bound to continue. What is certain is that the public should not be relying on Stewart or any other social commentator or satirist for informed accounts of political news. As with everything else in the free market, we will get the news that we demand, and find more of what we respond to. In the end, if the public proves too lethargic to make a concerted effort toward demanding intelligent journalism, then it can expect nothing more than laughable news and prominent comedy.