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.