How Y’all Get Some Political Fixin’s

As of late, the ways in which news is distributed are ever changing. Although the media format in which news is delivered has been a major focus in recent times, the feathers of journalism itself have been ruffled by satirical comedians such as Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and Bill Maher. These outspoken comedians have recently taken up a role of both informational value and integrity while offering up political news stories.

In a recent telephone interview, I had the chance to pick the brain of Ellen Graser, a 20 year old film student who is a regular viewer of both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” When I asked her about her sources for news, she first mentioned reading the New York Times a few times per week. After pausing for a second, possibly from being embarrassed to admit this, Graser conceded that most of her political wherewithal came from the two political satirists she watched regularly- Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.

“I don’t realize how much I’m, well, learning,” Graser says, “at least not until I’m having a conversation with someone about politics.”

In fact, in a survey conducted in April of 2007, The Pew Research Center found that 16% of those surveyed reported regularly watching “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report.” Of those viewers, the survey showed that 31% were college graduates while 26% were between the ages of 18 and 29.

A few days after interviewing Ms .Graser, I had the opportunity to speak to another 20 year old college student, Scott Krevat. This interview went in a slightly different direction as Krevat is not a regular viewer of either programs, but rather gets his news from websites such as Reuters.com and AP.org. When I asked him about what he thought about political satirists delivering real information and news, Krevat said, “I think if it’ll get out there in a different way, then so be it.” He went on to tell me that while political satirists may not necessarily deliver news in a better or more informative way than traditional news sources, they are indeed “just as informing as normal news.”

One of the main objectives of traditional satire is to bring important issues to light. While many people perceive satire as plain sarcasm or humor, it is much more often in the form of a witty remark or statement. In her article entitled “Smart satire skewers dumb politics; Spotlight,” Patricia Maunder makes a point when she writes that “The Colbert Report…can easily be taken as pure comic fun. But the combination of improv and tight scripting delivers some searing insights.”

That is exactly the job of good, strong political satire. While The Pew Research Center’s survey states that “the fact that a particular news source’s audience is very knowledgeable does not mean that people learned all that they know from that source.” The good news is that may not be all that matters. The upside to this all is in the extra exposure to real political issues. Shows like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are on the air for their values in entertainment and comedy, yet the Pew Research Center’s survey revealed that 54% of these shows’ regular viewers could be classified as having a high knowledge category. To be in the high knowledge level, the respondents had to answer at least fifteen of twenty three questions regarding politics and current affairs correctly.

“Satire doesn’t make the weak strong, it simply gives vent to their frustration and contempt,” writes Simon Edge in his article “Parodies that keep politicians on their toes.” Edge goes on to discuss the ups and downs of political satire; he writes about political disaster as well as success drawn from satire. An important note that Edge highlights is “that satirists really ought to know as much about politics as the politicians.”

It would be too simple to state how intelligent and witty a satirist needs to be in order to be successful in today’s world. Comedians like Stewart, Colbert, and Maher are all continuing on their courses for success, but we must be careful to not brush them off as simple comedians. With satirists making a push for seriousness, the task at hand is becoming clearer. Al Franken has been in the limelight for some time now. After leaving Saturday Night Live and writing a number of satirical books on politics, Franken is now in a race for a seat in the United States Senate for Minnesota. It is clear now that satirists are more than they are generally given credit for.

-adam michaelson

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Ambiguously Satire: Stephen Colbert the Satirist in the Newsroom

Ryan Hendricks

Satire is often a part of a comedic routine. However, due to the increasing convergence of media, satire has been making its way into broadcast journalism. “I often get my news from The Stephen Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, to be honest,” said Sean Hendricks, an 18 year-old college freshman. The Pew Research Center found that only 11% of those ages 18 to 29 regularly watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. This begs the question: what is the impact of satirical news on the youth population?

Stephen Colbert is a well known comedian who currently is the host of The Stephen Colbert Report, which is a show airing from Monday through Friday on Comedy Central. Mr. Colbert’s big break came when Saturday Night Live bought his satirical comedy sketch called The Ambiguously Gay Duo. This sketch pokes fun at homosexual superhero’s named Ace and Gary. Mr. Colbert played the voice of Ace throughout the entire series. His next big break came in 1997 when he was asked to play a part-time role on The Daily Show. His success on The Daily Show eventually earned him his own show called The Stephen Colbert Report, which has been running on Comedy Central Since 2005.

On television Mr. Colbert plays the role of a right-wing cable news personality. This character role allows Mr. Colbert to poke fun at many of the day’s major news stories. Colbert uses satire to show all shades of the political spectrum; through playing a right-wing personality he is able to give the one side of the story, and by then using satirical comedy he is able to show how the left views this issue. However, Jon Stewart and his colleague Stephen Colbert are far from journalists, and do not place the same emphasis on objectivity. Through making fun the right-wing Mr. Colbert seems to marginalize the conservative viewpoint for the sake of satire.

However, to his credit Mr. Colbert is often the media personality that most effectively performs the essential media function of government watchdog. Using satire as a cover, he is able to shed light on issues that other more formal journalist refuse to touch. This was most evident during the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in which Mr. Colbert used satire to make important political statements. While most journalist were praising the President, Colbert used his satirical routine to attack President George W. Bush for leading the country in a direction that was at odds with the will of the American people, and he also attacked the media for not shedding a light on President Bush’s dastardly deeds. By watching The Stephen Colbert Report citizens often get to see a part of the story that would otherwise go unreported by the mainstream media.

Mr. Colbert has successfully used a form of ambiguous satire to successfully shed light on important issues. Some other journalists have seen the success of The Stephen Colbert Report and have copied his technique; most notably Keith Olbermann host of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann who each night airs a segment called “The Worst Person in the World”. Keith Olbermann like many others in the business have realized that comedy can play an important role in how we get our news. Apparently, 11% of our 18-29 year-old population has already discovered the importance of satire in the newsroom. Through realizing the importance that satire plays in exposing unsavory activities, the youth have opened themselves up to another stream of consciousness that allows them to make more informed decisions.

How We Get Our Political Fix

We all prefer to get our news in our own unique way; however, for centuries newspapers and more recently television shows have been the only options, until now. Consumers are demanding to get only the news that interests them, in a format most convenient to them, and in doing so have found niches among television and the internet.

In just the last twenty years people have gone from relying on nightly news programs and newspapers, to having a nearly infinite source of news. The percentage of the American population that uses more traditional sources has sharply decreased in the last 15 years. According to a recent survey by The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, the percentages of people who regularly watch local TV news, or regularly read a newspaper have decreased from 77% to 54% and 58% to 40% respectively between 1993 and 2006. During this time the percentage of people that read online news regularly has increased from less than 2% to 31%.

What makes this study especially eye-opening are the statistics between 2000 and 2006. The percentages of people regularly using each type of media have remained nearly stagnant. This includes local TV news, cable TV news, nightly network news, network morning news, radio, newspapers, the internet, etc. The masses have found their favorite sources of news and are sticking to them.

18-year-old Samantha DeVictoria explained that she reads Newsday, a New York City newspaper every morning. She goes on to say that she prefers the newspaper to television news because “I hate the commercials. You can ignore them in a newspaper.” A complaint that has pushed millions away from receiving their news from audio or video, where commercial interruptions have become more frequent.

Recently, there has been a great deal of news regarding whether those between 18 and 29 years of age are obtaining their news solely from satirical shows such as “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, and “Real Time” with Bill Maher. The Pew Research Center’s study asked this very question, and it turned out that only 11% of those ages 18 to 29 regularly watch “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. Ozzy Gezer, a 25-year-old student says that these shows are usually on “too late at night,” and that he prefers to watch a news network such as CNN to get his news before he goes to sleep.

Part of what pushes a person to one source of news instead of another is the important factor of time. Gezer explained that sometimes he does not have time in the morning to read a newspaper, so he goes to CNN.com where he can quickly grasp what is happening in the world. “I wish I had time to read the paper during the week, but it’s not always possible” said David Rubinton, a middle-aged attorney. He then said, “Sometimes I listen to the radio while commuting, or I surf the internet on my phone while I eat lunch.” Reading a newspaper is a more active, but time-consuming way to get ones news, and thus, is not always feasible.

“TV is more for when I’m lazy” said Mr. Gezer. “It doesn’t make you think”. Television news programs, to many, has become a form of entertainment instead of a source of news. Which begs the question, who is really more informed?

Many say that the Internet is the best source of news. One can get up-to-the-minute news from anywhere in the world, and from a variety of sources. Niches has formed in a recent “Web 2.0” movement, in which new technologies are allowing people to be more involved in how they get their news.

A technology called RSS (“Really Simple Syndication”) allows you to aggregate news from nearly any modern website into a single, easy to use service, such as Google Reader, that notifies the user instantly when new stories arrive. Gezer’s comment on the technology is a familiar one to anybody trying to promote the benefits of RSS, “Sounds good, but I’ve never heard of it”. The very nature of RSS prevents content providers, such as The New York Times, The Associated Press, or CNN from collecting the ad revenue that would be obtained from the user visiting the website itself. This has impeded the adoption of RSS, as it simply does not make sense for The New York Times to advertise the feature; although nearly every news website does offer RSS.

Other websites, such as Digg.com and Newsvine.com are trying to provide a social aspect to news gathering. Users at these sites are responsible for which stories reach the front page through a voting system. Also, you can follow specific users’ voting if their taste in news complements your own.

Mr. Gezer brought up an interesting point during our discussion about social news gathering, “People go into a bubble”. In other words, if you aren’t interested in world news, you could just not follow it at all when using the Internet. When watching a TV show, listening to the radio, or even reading a newspaper, it is a guarantee that you will come across nearly every type of news. This is not true of those who use RSS, Digg.com, or even CNN.com. One can easily enter “into a bubble” and never again be informed about the genocide in Darfur, or global warming, or even the new celebrity sex video. Regardless of whether or not it benefits society, technology has allowed for the ultimate form of “news personalization”.

– Brian Rubinton