When Comedy Goes Where Journalism Dare Not

Posted on September 8, 2010

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Sorry I’ve been neglecting you guys lately; I’ve been pretty buried with school and whatnot. This is one of the things I’ve been busy doing, this was an assignment for my journalism class.

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While the headline “Proposition 8 Overturned” was not uncommon in newspapers and magazines this past summer, what is a bit unusual is the article revealing Prop 8 proponents’ strategies for banning gay marriage in the future, which include “allowing students to shower with opposite-sex peers in gym class,” and “if any of your uncles feel weird about it, the wedding’s off.” Welcome to The Onion, a satirical news organization that has been entertaining readers for 22 years. Using comedy as both its sword and its shield, The Onion comments on current events, and how current events are presented in the media today.

The Onion takes a look at the biases and absurdities in today’s media by looking and acting a lot like today’s media. So convincing is The Onion’s reportage of fake headlines, that they are often mistaken for real events, causing outrage and embarrassment among the gullible. But it is this attention to detail, and strict compliance with the format of newspapers, TV news shows and web sites that allows for The Onion to drive its point home so clearly, and so comically. However, The Onion isn’t the only fake news organization poking fun at traditional media and current events; both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are politically minded satire TV shows, poking fun at political commentators on the left and right sides of the aisle.

Countless members of the left-wing media and political moderates have unsuccessfully attempted to articulate the problems with the journalistic integrity of Fox News to devotees of the network, but everyone can see that the persona that Stephen Colbert portrays is hilariously ridiculous. Colbert’s character on his TV show, The Colbert Report, is a slightly exaggerated version of the right-wing political commentators that frequent the Fox News channel. However hilarious it may be, Colbert’s show is actually very seriously criticizing the ignorance, values, misinformation and inaccuracies presented by Fox News. In this case, satire is the only way to make such a thoroughly convincing critique of a serious news organization.

Jon Stewart uses satire to make similar jabs on The Daily Show, although his criticism, veiled as comedy, extends to all networks and all political affiliations. Stewart’s antagonizing of the media has even prompted responses from the butt of his jokes. Bill O’Reilly, a Fox News commentator, used his show to deliver a message directly to Stewart, in response to a segment on The Daily Show in which Stewart pointed out blatant hypocrisy on the part of Fox News, then looks directly into the camera and states, “Fox News, go f–k yourselves.”

John Stewart, as well as Stephen Colbert and The Onion, can use the excuse of comedy, as well as the relaxed profanity censorship on basic cable TV, to shield themselves from rebuke of their attacks. They can make very serious commentary on very controversial issues, and then throw up the excuse of “hey, don’t take me seriously, I’m just a comedian.”  But O’Reilly’s reaction to Stewart’s provocation indicates something far more consequential going on than pure entertainment.  Why would a major news corporation feel threatened enough to counter attacks by “just a comedian” on late-night cable comedy show?

Not only is satire a legitimate outlet of social commentary, perhaps it is the best one. Satire is accessible to everyone, and even those that disagree with the argument acknowledge the validity of the discourse. Satire presents the unique opportunity to point out objections by becoming those objections, and hyperbolizing them to the point of hilarity. Satire can show what often cannot be expressed in plain words and rebuttal; it allows the audience to plainly see the failings of a variety of ways of thinking and presentation. While it may be labeled as comedy, the people behind The Onion, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show make valid arguments that should be taken seriously. Even Bill O’Reilly understands that.

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