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Solving America’s Fake News Problem: Part 2 – Satire, Seth Meyers, and the Saviour of the Fourth Estate | Op-Ed

In Part 1 of this series, I examined the importance of the press for a functioning democracy. The introduction of cable television fragmented that press, subsequently fragmenting the American consciousness.

A functioning press is paramount for equipping citizens with the necessary tools to participate in democracy and have the agency to make choices that align with their fundamental values.

  • The fourth estate of the enlightenment and the early days of American democracy prioritized, at its forefront, the public interest and the function to hold those in power accountable.
  • But as capitalism and technological innovation penetrated the press, those foundational functions diminished in contrast to the growing demand for entertainment and specificity in reporting.
  • The cable news giants subverted the fourth estate and the rhetoric shared across their platforms has removed the independence from journalism.

In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss how satire and satirical news programming can begin returning the press to its intended purpose.

  • Satire provides a voice outside of the traditional, convention-bound space occupied by politics and media.
  • Comedy has the ability to reveal the absurdities of life, democratize information, and create the space in which citizens can interact with politics in a way that promotes effective political participation.

More broadly, satire’s commentary on politics and the mainstream media destabilizes the current conflicts proliferating across the United States in the post-truth era that are intrinsically tied to the fragmentation, nichification, and failings of the fourth estate.

In Short: Satirical comics are uniquely positioned to critique both the institutions of power that govern our lives and the narratives presented by a fragmented press, effectively democratizing information and promoting advancement.

  • When mainstream media cloaks entertainment as information, it shapes the political and cultural realities of the society on which it seeks to report.
  • Satire enters as a means to reveal the absurdities of the ruling class, democratize information, and create the space in which citizens can interact with politics in a way that promotes effective political participation.

While satire has existed since well before the establishment of the fourth estate or cable television, the rise of satirical political programming has been a direct reaction to the absurdity of the media and of the political establishment.

  • The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were among the first of these programs, ushered in at the peak of the cable news wars.
  • They presented a satirized reflection of what audiences had become accustomed to seeing on every large news network.
  • If one were to mute the television set, these shows would be indistinguishable from the leading news programs of the early 2000s.

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The Power of Humour: Freud provides an excellent commentary on how humour can disrupt a line of power.

  • He asserts that jokes perform a momentary act of aggression directed to that which holds power over the masses – a person, an idea, or an institution – allowing for a moment in which to free one’s self from that power and reflect upon it.

When a political figure or hegemonic ideal is critiqued in the envelope of humor, the audience has a chance to question it.

The Strength of Satirical News Programming: Politicians and the institutions surrounding them are impenetrable by the everyday person. Humour, however, provides the space in which to interact with these impenetrables in a manageable way.

  • More than creating a momentary suspension of power, the artistic license afforded to comedians allows a satirical comic to engage with these figures and ideas in a way that traditional media cannot.
  • While journalists are bound by an ethical code, and cable news anchors are bound by their network’s code of conduct, comedians are not held to any standard and are, therefore, in a unique position when it comes to exposing and removing power from elites.

Seth Meyers and Kellyanne Conway: In a 2017 interview with GQ, Seth Meyers reflected on an interview he conducted with White House advisor Kellyanne Conway and revealed the unique power his show has to hold politicians and their mouthpieces accountable:

The huge advantage I have over people in the news is a live audience. It’s so great because they serve as an audible bullshit detector…[W]hen I said, ‘That’s a pivot,’ the audience laughed, and it took away her ability to lie. She would not just be saying that I was wrong, but 200 other people were wrong.”

Seth Meyers, GQ, 2017

Allowing laughter to enter political discourse provides a momentary power imbalance in which an elite or their idea is destabilized, and the viewer can interact with that absurdity.

Purpose of the Fourth Estate – Emphasis on the Individual: An emphasis on the individual, non-elite, laymen is paramount to the fulfilment of the civic functionality of a successful press.

  • When the press begins to serve its own self-interests or those of its powerful contributors, the ability for the mainstream media to affect meaningful social change and commentary is lost.

The Role of Comedy

Comedy provides one path for galvanizing the attention of the individual and sparking conversations about difficult, counter-norm, or confusing topics.

  • While the mainstream media has no problem discussing high-brow issues, this coverage does not always relay meaningful takeaways to the every-day man.
  • Discussions of policy issues may be debated ad nauseum (to an excessive degree), but the implications of these debates are only useful if the audience understands the basics of the issue being argued.

What comedy, and particularly satirical programming, enables is a tackling of complex topics in a way that can be digested by the masses.

  • Comedy has the ability to provide a framework through which audiences can begin to make sense of issues they may encounter in their lives or in other media.
  • When difficult-to-understand information is delivered through comedy, it increases the information’s palatability and can democratize the flow of information.

The Role of Satire

Satire exists to bridge a gap between philosophy and the public.

  • It does this by dealing with important issues in simplistic and accessible ways, allowing the satirist to distinguish right from wrong and to strongly attack what is wrong.
  • Our favourite late night hosts do this well by bridging the divide between the complexities and abstractness of important issues and the capacities of the general public.
  • They use comedy to draw out and isolate the absurdities in politics so they can guide their audience away from a position of apathy or indifference.

Research has suggested that that internal political efficacy – a belief in one’s own ability to understand and participate in politics – can stimulate political participation.

  • Exposure to content that increases one’s ability to understand politics has also been seen to be correlated with increased political participation.
  • The comedic paring down of political topics may influence the free exchange of information and inclusion of the masses in public participation in ways that the press has failed, returning the role of the media to that of democratization.

The Future Can Be Shaped by The Funny People: American society currently finds itself trapped in a visceral state of intractable conflict. When a society finds itself enmeshed in this polarizing position, advancement and productivity stall.

  • When a nation is at war with itself, a culture of divisiveness informs decision making and endangers democracy.
  • While homogeneity of ideas rarely breeds innovation or progress, and while conflict has always been a necessary component of diverse societies, continuing to advance the current trajectory of Western journalism is dangerous.
  • A trajectory that reinforces this dichotomization of ideas and a muddying of objective truths in favour of sensationalized opinion must be stunted.

It would be idealistic to envision a world in which objectivity and truth beat the drive for profit. So too would it be idealistic to envision a world in which the mass population reach a level of agreement and understanding that reverses the damage and influence of the fractured media.

  • There is, however, merit to envisioning a world in which the new realities of politics and media can be judged and interacted with in novel and effective ways.

Bottom Line: Contemporary satirists offer an alternative course for audiences to interact with the world around them.

  • The expectation of what one can expect from mainstream media is a forum through which politics, and its surrounding rhetoric, is posited as something to learn.
  • The way in which the mainstream media delivers narratives to its viewers invites them to gawk and stare at politics from behind a proverbial glass shield.
  • Satire invites the viewer to sneak under this glass shield to test, examine, and question what is true.
  • An invitation that may hold the key to the resurrection of a functioning and effective fourth estate.


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