Political Satire: Beyond the Humor

In January 2012, Stephen Colbert launched the Colbert Super PAC on his late night talk show, “The Colbert Report,” lambasting the rules governing formation of and coordination in political action committees. Surprisingly, Colbert succeeded where many authentic news sources have not in explaining the inconsistencies in and implications of laws governing PACs clearly. The episode garnered 1.3 million viewers, not including online audiences.

Political satire outlets have risen in popularity considerably in recent years. In fact, Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” were the two most-watched late night talk shows among 18- to 49-year-olds in the first quarter of 2013. “The Onion”, a well-known satirical newspaper and website with a political section, started with modest beginnings and now boasts 7.5 million viewers monthly.

This meteoric rise has led scholars and laymen alike to question the impact humorous news outlets have on politics. One thing is clear: Satire has made politics more accessible, leading to more informed viewers who have the potential to form more educated opinions and discuss those views with others.

This advantage of satirical news is particularly important today, when many serious news sources find themselves restricted by pressures to fill time and produce profit. Due to these pressures, many news outlets portray politics dramatically, and often will pay brief mention to less exciting but important political news. These selection criteria and overwrought portrayals mislead those who fail to realize what outlets have omitted and increase distrust in those who realize that events are only reported for their value as a “story.”

In contrast, political satire chooses reports based on comedic value, which—instead of deviating from essential information—often accentuates the news and underscores important issues in politics. Colbert’s super PAC is a prime example. Although the comedian seemed to be exaggerating, current PAC regulation allowed Colbert to do nearly anything he wanted with his committee, and he took full advantage to accessibly and humorously underscore his unrestricted freedom without deviating from facts.

Despite these advantages, some have argued that political satire encourages cynicism, trivializes politics, and promotes a narrow point of view (stemming from the predominantly liberal leanings of most political satirists and comedians). It is true that, when taken in isolation, political satire poses many drawbacks, and that the constant critique of political figures and media outlets can lead to skepticism.

However, viewers of satire are more likely to watch and read traditional news sources as well, according to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review. In fact, satirists often refer to other news sources to provide background for their critiques, as Stewart has done numerous times with CNN and Fox News, serving the dual purpose of communicating news and criticizing the current methods of political media. The same article also references research that suggests increased viewership of political humor does not distance the audience from politics but instead “increases knowledge of current events, leads to further information-seeking on related topics, and increases viewer interest in and attention paid to politics and news.” This more informed and interested audience naturally has more opportunities to share educated opinions with others and provoke discussion.

Arguments that satire actually increases narrow-mindedness because it panders to liberals also have their flaws. While there are few Republican and conservative viewers, data show that less than half of the viewers of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are liberals; in fact, 38 percent of viewers of “The Colbert Report,” as well as 41 percent of those watching “The Daily Show,” consider themselves independents. These shows have roughly the same percentage of Democrat viewers as the New York Times and USA Today and a lower percentage than CNN, all of which claim to be non-partisan news sources.

Moreover, humorists connect with their audience more effectively than news anchors do. While politics in news is often portrayed as a field separate from daily life, Stewart and Colbert easily relate their coverage to the average viewer. In contrast to Sunday talk shows such as NBC’s “Meet the Press” and ABC’s “This Week,” which host roundtables of pundits discussing the political issues of the day in non-personal terms, satirists need to be personal for their comedy to be understood and entertaining.

Finally, instead of allowing experts to express their opinions as fact as some journalists do, humorists often challenge the views of experts to the audience’s benefit. For example, in October 2013, Stewart hosted Kathleen Sebelius, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services, and criticized Obamacare for delaying compliance with the bill for big businesses but not individuals. He critiqued the fact that these businesses can lobby for their interests while individuals cannot. Although some coverage of this issue made news sources, Stewart presented it at length with an authentic source and in a comedic and memorable fashion. He caught viewers’ attention and demonstrated that experts are not always correct.

Taken together with traditional news sources, political humor at least molds a more informed public and at best increases political involvement and excitement. The humor provides the tools; viewers must decide whether to use them.

Anthony Thai ’17 is a Crimson editorial writer in Straus Hall.

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