Satire News and Its Affect on Our Nation

Essay by connortistCollege, UndergraduateA, December 2009

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As Mary Worley Montagu once said, "Satire should, like a polished razor keen, wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen." In our modern world news satire is doing just that. What some may dismiss as purely comical or as a lighthearted joke is having a greater impact on our elections and political perceptions than many realize. This is especially evident in new voters. My generation, who has been exposed to satire news at an early age, views it not only as entertaining gag but as a viable news source. From 1994 to 2004, the 18-24 year-old age group spent 16 fewer minutes on average following news on a daily basis and a full 25% reported that they pay no attention at all to hard, traditional news. Also over half (54%) of young adults in this age group reported that they got at least some news about the 2004 presidential campaign from comedy programs such as The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.

Only 15% of Americans over the age of 45 years reported learning something about the campaign from the same sources. (Baumgartner) The trend is clear. More young Americans prefer their brand of comedic news as opposed to traditional news. Many opponents of news satire say that this brand of comedy is creating young political cynics. However, in a world where our news is spoon fed to us and labeled as truth, we need the counter balance and increased cynicism that comes with satire. Exposure to satire is making the youth think and that is last thing most big corporations want America's youth doing. They would rather of us tune out the world around us and be content with the status quo, rather than thinking critically and demanding more. They want to lull the youth into an uninformed misinformed stupor where we are told what to buy, who to vote for, and when to do it. Ignorance and loyalty are what companies look for most in a customer, and there is no exception for the traditional news media. There is an alternative to the ignorance and the mundane. I will be analyzing four of the main news satire outlets and their affect on the populace. Satire news has created a new powerful growing market that is shaping our modern world. Satire news is having a larger affect on our nation than most realize.

The Onion has been of American satire for the last twenty years. The Onion has reached a widespread audience of over five million readers each month. (Johnson) Also The Onion is one of the few in print news companies to remain afloat during the dot com crash and is actually turning a profit. (Keighley) We can easily see the relevance of this at time when mainstream newspapers are closing. Last week, the Seattle Daily News closed. The government has also recognized satire's potent affect. Grant M. Dixton, a former associate counsel to Bush administration, wrote the Onion warning of misusing the Presidential seal. The Onion responded in typical oniony fashion and inquired why the President thought it prudent to waste tax payer dollars on a letter to the Onion. (Seelye) Another way we can see the shift away from hard news is that many former new anchors are taking jobs with satire new outlets. For example, Bobbie Battista, who worked at CNN for over twenty years, and recently took a job at the Onion and is now reporting on a "New Drug that can Cure Insufferably Happy People". (Ho) If one needs further proof as to the influence of the Onion, look at the times it was misused and taken out of context. The Beijing Evening News took an article published by the Onion and cited it as their own. The problem when stealing from another news site is that one doesn't know how reliable the data is. So when the Beijing Evening News ran a story with the headline "Congress Threatens to Leave D.C. Unless New Capitol Is Built" they should have checked to make sure they were not stealing from a fake news source. (Chu) It is not, however, only foreign news outlets that have stolen from the Onion. Deborah Norvile reported a study that said "58 percent of U.S. exercise Televised" during an MSNBC broadcast. (Terdiman) The Onion is also exposing certain activists' ignorance of their personal views. Baptist minister, Fred Phelps, took an article of the Onion and treated it as evidence in his "God Hates Fags" article. The Onion article read "'98 Homosexual-Recruitment Drive Nearing Goal", however Phelps used this article as proof to his claims that homosexuals were trying to push their sinful ways on the populace. ("Fred") After his so called proof was seen on a satire news site Phelps was exposed as the desperate radical extremist he is. Ellen Makkai is a staunch Christian fundamentalist who believes that the Harry Potter series of books are satanic. She wrote an article and took a quote directly from the Onion without citing it. The quote read ""Harry is an absolute godsend to our cause," said High Priest Egan of the First Church of Satan in Salem, MA. "An organization like ours thrives on new blood-no pun intended-and we've had more applicants than we can handle lately. And, of course, practically all of them are virgins, which is gravy."" ("Harry")The Onion has also created buzz on the Internet because some readers don't realize they are reading satire. An example of this was when the Onion ran an article with the headline, "Child Bankrupts Make-A-Wish Foundation with Wish for Unlimited Wishes". The sad reality is that many Americans mistook this for real actual news. is a website that focuses on Internet rumors. It reported that many people mistook the Onion's article and Snopes had to address this rumor. ("Make") Clearly, that whether mistaken as reality, blatantly taken out of context, or creating new successful markets the Onion is clearly having a tremendous affect on our nation.

Saturday Night Live has been doing parodies of presidential canidates for years but their latest parodies are having a greater impact. Tina Fey had an incredible impact on this year's election. Julia Tagliere writes, "The morning after a presidential (or vice presidential) debate, one would expect the news shows to open with clips from the actual debates, but as sketch after sketch aired on SNL lampooning Palin (and to a lesser and occasional degree, McCain, Biden, and Obama, as well as Clinton), many morning news shows were actually opening with clips from the SNL debates instead! The sketches themselves were being seen, and regurgitated on news shows, almost as often as the real debates themselves." (Tagliere) It is interesting to note that this particular brand of satire is not only parodying the debates but having greater influence on voters than the debates themselves. It is not a coincidence that after Fey's Palin impersonation the McCain platform dropped significantly behind Obama. Some may dismiss this as a political quirk and argue that satire is good natured and in fact has very little to do with people's decisions when they get to the poll box. One of these people is comedian and former Gerald Ford impersonator, Chevy Chase. According to The Associated Press Chase said, "Anybody can reach anywhere from five to 15 million people weekly, making a president look like an idiot as I did back then or Tina Fey did with Sarah Palin. ... You're always preaching to the choir one way or the other." (Associated) What Chase fails to comprehend is that when one makes a national leader look like an idiot on national television, citizens do not vote for that person. However, Fey's distinct Palin parody is much different from the parodies of the past. When Phil Hartman satirized Bill Clinton for loving McDonald's and when Dana Carvey wore night vision goggles as George H. Bush, these parodies truly did have little effect on our nation. They were both quite extreme and came at time when the President was not up for reelection. Tiny Fey, however, satirized in the middle of what was then a close election. She also, for the first time in SNL history, took an actual transcript of an interview between Sarah Palin and Katie Couric and word for word, submitted herself in Palin's role. Viewers could scarcely tell a difference between Palin and Fey. After Tina Fey's parody, the real interview quadrupled in the number of viewings on YouTube. (Correa) Surely, even Chevy Chase must realize the affect Palin's parody had on the election … even if he won't admit it.

Bill Moyers of PBS once said to Jon Stewart, "When I report the news on this broadcast, people say I'm making it up. When you make it up, they say you're telling the truth." The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was the first news satire show of its kind. It takes real news and reports it with an exaggerated slant and also brings in many major political figures for about an hour interview which is later edited to about seven minutes. Major guests have included Bill O' Reilly, Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Trent Lott, Collin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole, Nancy Pelosi, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Gates. John McCain has actually appeared on the Daily Show thirteen times. ("Daily") Baumgartner and Morris of East Carolina University did a study in which a variety of college students participated. The first group was exposed to traditional hard news for seven minutes and then asked to rate our current political system and its leaders. The next group was then exposed to the Daily Show for seven minutes and asked to repeat the process. The third group was the control and exposed to nothing. What the study found was that the students who were exposed to the Daily Show responded more critically and cynically than the students who had been exposed to traditional news or nothing. (Baumgartner) Some critics may say that this increased cynicism is negative and could pose new struggles with voting and the political process in general. However, cynicism has its place in society. These so called cynics are could merely be better informed of the crooked policies that occur in our government and major businesses that back the mainstream media. These cynics are merely realists.

Stephen Colbert's show the Colbert Report is a spin-off from The Daily Show. The entirety of Colbert's program is actually a satire of conservative talk show host Bill O' Reilly of the O'Reilly Factor. Colbert also has many important guests appear on his show. In one episode alone, Colbert had all three candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination make an appearance. Actually there were four candidates on the show, Stephen included. Colbert actually ran for President in the 2008 primaries. He did shockingly well earning 13% of the initial poll. This was more than Ron Paul, Ralph Nadner, and Mike Huckabee. ("Comedian") Colbert's book I Am America (And So Can You!) debuted at number one on the New York Times best seller list and remained at number one for fourteen weeks. ("Books") This could be largely due to "Colbert Bump." If Stephen likes something or has a specific guest on he gives them a "bump" by asking the "Colbert nation" to buy the things that he endorses. What started as a gag quickly became one of the best advertisements available. After being on the Report guests reported an average increase in sales by about ten times. (Gemignani) Colbert even has his own Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor that bears his name. Colbert clearly has more influence than most realize.

Clearly through research and various studies I have shown how news satire is affecting our country. We must understand, however, that this is not necessarily a bad thing. A cynical voter is better than an ignorant voter. We need satire and cynicism to keep our government honest and to give us the truth rather than letting large corrupt news syndicates feed it to us. We need to be interpreting the news as we see fit and one of the best ways to do that is through humor. While pure influence is never good, satire news influences its viewers to think for themselves. That is why satire news is having a larger affect on our nation than most realize.

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