Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Daily Show, News, and Satire

This is just a short post about something that bothers me about comedy satire shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I think these shows are quite enjoyable and actually perform a valuable service to society. Political satire is very useful for getting people engaged in important current events that they might otherwise not take interest in, and given the increasing trend of actual news media to focus on sensational stories to get ratings rather than on news stories that actually matter, these comedy satire shows are often airing stories that otherwise will be missed by many people.

My problem is that whenever a news program such as Fox News sends a criticism back towards The Daily Show for bad reporting, Jon Stewart typically uses the defence that his show is a comedy program, not a news show, so he should not be held to the same journalistic standards as news programs. I think he is mistaken in this for two important reasons, and that he needs to stop hiding behind this excuse.

Creating news content

If The Daily Show only ever reported on stories reported elsewhere, then it would have a fair claim that it is purely a satire show, taking existing news and mocking/commenting on it. However, this is not the case. The Daily Show creates news content of its own in two different ways:
  • Sending out 'correspondents' to create news stories on some topic
  • Having politicians, authors, actors, etc. on the show as guests
Now, you could argue that the news stories they create are humorous and not intended to be taken seriously, but I don't think this is actually true, certainly not all the time at least. They go out and talk to real people about real events. Just because they inject jokes and often mock the people they are interviewing does not stop it from being actual news. And quite often there is a clear message they are trying to promote. Injecting jokes into a news report doesn't suddenly make it no longer news. It just makes it news that is more enjoyable to watch.

News shows such as Australia's The Project are examples of news reporting coming from the other side of the spectrum, that is, news programs that add humour, as opposed to comedy shows that add news. Watching shows like these, it is clear that they all exist in a spectrum from serious to funny, but they all report their own news, rather than simply providing satire on other people's reporting.

Having guests on your show also invalidates any claim that you are only a comedy show. Let's face it, when The Daily Show has the current US President as a guest on the show, does Jon Stewart really get to just claim that he's not taking part in news creation? He doesn't have the President doing comedy sketches like Saturday Night Live, but answering real world questions. Sure there are jokes, but this is news creation, not satire in any way.

Knowing how others view you

Let's say that Jon Stewart genuinely only wants The Daily Show to be considered as a comedy show. Then he learns that many people watch his show for actual news content. He can say, "well, we're only a comedy show. If they want news content, they should watch something else". That's all well and good, but the unfortunate truth is that once you are aware that people are seeing you in a different way than you intend, you can no longer go on as you did before pretending that you're oblivious to this knowledge.

As an analogy, if you are naturally a quiet person, but one day you find out that all of the people around you mistake your quietness for snobbishness, you now have a dilemma. You can say, "but I'm not being snobbish, I'm just quiet" all you want, but this won't change the fact that people don't see it that way, and now you know it. You can insist that it's their misinterpretation and not your fault, but the fact will still remain that the next time you are around these people, you will be aware of the effect your behaviour has, and it is now a conscious decision to keep on acting that way. Fair or not, your choice to keep acting the way you always have is now a deliberate choice to keep people misunderstanding you.

In the same way, even if Jon Stewart doesn't want his show to be treated as a news show, once he's aware that people do, in fact, watch his show to catch up on news, he has no choice but to make that knowledge part of his future decisions. If he chooses to report on some stupid celebrity story rather than on an important political issue, he now does it knowing that he's wasted an opportunity to make the public better informed. That's his right, of course, but he has to make that choice, and he can't deny the effects of that choice, whether he likes it or not.


Of the various comedy satire shows I watch at times, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Real Time With Bill Maher, I think Real Time understands its place in the spectrum of news programs best, and embraces that position well. Maher's interviews will often have humour in them, but never let the humour take over and drown out the actual serious issues being discussed. This is something that I think The Daily Show and The Colbert Report do not do well, and I think they would do better if they accepted their actual position in the world, rather than trying to have their cake and eat it too, so to speak. If they genuinely want to be treated just as comedy shows, and are not just using that as an excuse so they don't have to stand behind their reporting, then they should probably both drop the interviews with serious people and stick to actors and musicians, and stop doing field reports on real issues. But if they do that, I think we'll all be worse off.

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