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Comedy in the age of political volatility

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MARCH 31, 2019

My first interaction with mainstream news was sitting by the TV with my dad, watching a group of unruly adults yell at each other about the latest “breaking news!” headline in the world. The news produced by media giants was fed to me as a beacon of credibility. This was reinforced in my schooling, with teachers insisting that the citations at the ends of our essays contain the same old conventional news websites and that any source that didn’t match those criteria was spreading straight falsehoods. This paradigm was one within which I safely resided for most of my life. There was no reason for me to push back against it. When my parents were growing up, mainstream print media was their primary way of connecting with the outside world. Newspapers or broadcasts were always, always the preferred source. Nowadays, when my dad tells me to “follow the news,” he links me to articles and clips instead of handing me a physical newspaper or sitting me down in front of the TV.

All paradigms shift, though. Mine did in high school while working on a project about the reliability of modern news sources. A few quick online searches were all it took to reveal a string of accusations about incorrect news stories being spread by journalistic powerhouses — the same ones I had always held in the highest regard. From the BBC’s false headlines about Jerusalem rabbis sentencing a dog to death by stoning to pictures from Iraq in 2003 being used on articles about a massacre in Syria in 2012, mainstream news sources have had their fair share of slip-ups. While this did not in any way discredit them as reliable sources of information, it did call into question their supposed monopoly on the market.

Right when I was experiencing this crisis of faith, an unlikely hero entered. John Oliver first appeared to me on my Facebook news feed, starring in a 30-second snippet from “The Daily Show” poking fun at the Trump presidency. A few more clicks on YouTube and I found myself in the midst of videos covering some of the most interesting stories from around the world. None of them were from bastions of mainstream journalism. But they all had something in common — the ability to make people laugh and come out of the experience more informed than they were at the start. They all represented a positive movement toward viewing and accepting comedic reporting in the same light as traditional sources of news analysis. They were not engaged in journalism, per se, but were reporting on issues covered by media outlets and presenting commentary that can frequently be more thoughtful than the commentators stuck within the 24-hour news cycle.

Nowadays, when my dad tells me to “follow the news,” he links me to articles and clips instead of handing me a physical newspaper or sitting me down in front of the TV.

Making the news funny isn’t a new phenomenon. As British satirical comedy emerged in the 1960s, it spawned a series of shows such as “That Was the Week That Was,” considered by many to be one of the programs to portray news comedically. This, in turn, inspired shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” which premiered in 1975 and has a “Weekend Update” segment as part of its runtime, making parodied headlines about the latest occurrences in the world. This spirit was further encapsulated by programs such as “The Daily Show,” which under its famous host Jon Stewart implemented a shift in thinking about comedic news not just as parodies of existing news, but rather about making fun of said news. The style employed by segments such as the “Weekend Update” revolved, and still revolve, around taking real headlines and parodying them. Stewart, on the other hand, moved toward applying satire not to the news itself, but to the way in which it was delivered. Using comedy, Stewart and his cohorts carved a path out for the general public, especially youngsters without much political background or awareness of jargon going in, to navigate the political landscape around them.

And these shows have continued to make news more accessible, oftentimes much better than the commentary on reporting offered by mainstream news sources. Though its onsite reporting is a necessary pillar of journalistic coverage, CNN’s classic split screen of experts debating the news and offering commentary can often be disorientating and inaccessible to viewers unfamiliar with the issue or the jargon. Enter comedians, whose commentary can be more clear-cut and ideal for introducing new viewers to the issue. Take Stephen Colbert, for instance. A study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that Colbert’s explanation of campaign financing in 2014 was far more effective in educating the general public than coverage from channels such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. How did he do it? He, in every episode, essentially engaged in the very process of creating a type of Political Action Committee called a super PAC that is in charge of donating to political campaigns. He then created a shell corporation that could funnel unlimited funds into said super PAC, demonstrating how campaign financing systems can be co-opted by individuals or lobbying groups setting up multiple accounts to transfer dark money into the campaign, with the candidate ultimately serving their interests after being elected. Such an act would have been unthinkable a decade ago, and yet today, comedian-analysts such as Colbert are pushing the boundaries in terms of how to deliver news in the most impactful manner.

Unfortunately, the older demographics of the U.S. population tend to have a preconceived notion — the same one that I held for the longest time. Evidence from the Pew Research Center shows that programs from mainstream media outlets such as “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Anderson Cooper 360°” tend to have a much higher median age of viewers compared to their more humorous counterparts. This in some ways shows the reluctance of older generations to switch to alternative forms of receiving news commentary.

Mainstream news sources are still what people are used to when it comes to interpreting the briefs that come day in and day out. While I don’t wish to detract from that, the fact is that the rise of comedic commentary-reporting isn’t just a millennial fad. Rather, it is something whose effects have been documented by modern research as being of paramount importance to the way the general public perceives and interprets the news. A 2014 study by the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware showed how viewers of satirical shows are better informed about news issues compared to viewers of traditional news programs. The news story in question being net neutrality, the percentage of people who were well aware of it was significantly higher among viewers of satirical news shows.

…today, comedian-analysts such as Colbert are pushing the boundaries in terms of how to deliver news in the most impactful manner.

The implications of this are widespread. Traditional comedy has free license to be unfiltered, hyperbolic and heavily opinionated. But what happens when it becomes the first point of information for millions of people across the world? What happens when these shows hold a pivotal role in shaping people’s perceptions of their governments? According to research at Ohio State University, satirical news is far better than conventional news at reaching people who have little to no engagement with political issues. For many, it is their first exposure to news and the one with the longest-lasting impact. With such power comes great responsibility.

In recent times, this responsibility has come under scrutiny from certain segments of the public. Last week, comedian Hasan Minhaj, on his Netflix show “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” covered the upcoming Indian elections. This election is poised to be the largest in the world, with more than 900 million Indians being eligible to vote. While not operating under a two-party system like the United States, India’s ruling government has almost always been a coalition led by one of two parties: the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and the Indian National Congress, or Congress. Minhaj, in his coverage, touches upon sensitive issues. Trying to remain unbiased, he charts the rise of right-wing nationalism in India by pulling out all the stops, even comparing India’s current prime minister to President Donald Trump, and Minhaj mentions the criminal charges brought against several senior leaders of the Congress party.

Minhaj soon found himself mired in controversy, however, as Twitter users claimed that his criticism of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was “anti-Indian” and “anti-Hindu,” calling for a boycott of his show and of Netflix. Funnily enough, Minhaj foreshadowed this very criticism in the same episode, claiming that the overarching attitude of Indians toward politics is to not discuss it at all. This sentiment has escalated in the last few years, with dissent against the government serving as an open invitation for threats and harassment from supporters of the incumbent party. In such a tense climate, an inevitable debate arises between the right to free speech and the power of censorship — not from the government but from the general public itself.

Violence against dissenters of the government is not uncommon in India. In perhaps one of the most high-profile stories of the year, acclaimed journalist Gauri Lankesh, who for long had spoken out against the right-wing Hindutva philosophy of the BJP and religious extremism, was shot dead outside her home. There is no evidence that any political party had anything to do with her death. But statements made by BJP figures after her death such as “had she refrained from writing such articles she would have been alive today. … the way she has written against us, is unacceptable,” give rise to the notion that criticism of the government — a central tenet of any democracy — is often a treacherous path to take. Dissent is not looked upon favorably, and its victims are not the individuals being censured by critics, but rather those who dare to speak out.

Given comedic reporting’s immense reach and power to shape the formative views of those in the nascent stages of their political exploration and knowledge-gathering, it stands to reason that the same license of freedom afforded to traditional comedy cannot be applied in this context. But this is no way warrants the boycott of a program aimed toward educating the public. This type of criticism is rooted in the mentality of people not appreciating the joke when it finally turns on them. What sets someone like Minhaj apart from mainstream news channels is that he preempts the criticism he will receive and makes a joke out of it. He knows his audience well, and channels that understanding into satirizing more nuanced aspects of the news, covering everything from the actual content to the reactions of the public.

Mainstream news channels, in their commentary, criticize parties from across the political spectrum on a daily basis. It is what results in them attracting an audience composed of a certain demographic of voters and is quintessential to their success as a medium of news. Comedians such as Minhaj provoke more outrage but are also more effective in exposing the problematic trend of public censorship in their object of critique.

In such a tense climate, an inevitable debate arises between the right to free speech and the power of censorship…

Not only do shows such as Minhaj’s have access to similar-sized audiences as conventional television-based news programs, but they also have the liberty, granted by comedy, to mock and expose those in power in an impactful manner. Comedy is based on observations of the world around us. Applying comedy to news can be effective because it engages viewers to question — and occasionally laugh at — the world around them.

Comedic shows will never be able to replace journalism in its function. Oliver, in a 2017 segment, explicitly disassociated his comedic news show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” from the vital acts of on-the-ground reporting. But these shows can serve a crucial purpose all the same in shaping and improving responses and commentary with regard to the results of journalistic exposés. It draws more awareness to the headlines and reporting and encourages viewers to find out more.

It’s no longer facetious to call comedic reporting a new form of commenting on the news. And the act of associating making people laugh with delivering the latest headlines is no small, laughing matter. Rather, it is the first step in accepting the changing dynamics of the intersection between politics and mass media and embracing the role of laughter in shaping opinions on the most consequential issues of the world today. And the same news that 10-year-old me ran away from is something I’ll happily share a laugh over with my dad today.

Contact Arth Vidyarthi at [email protected].

MARCH 31, 2019