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When Jon Stewart made his famous appearance on Crossfire in 2004, directly criticizing pundits qua “journalists,” he demonstrated several important ideas about the relationship between satirists and journalists that should be revisited in light of this weekend’s bro-ha-ha over Michelle Wolf’s satiric performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
When it comes to reactions from journalists and comedians, it appears to be a free-speech house divided. The journalism community, which widely criticized Wolf’s performance as crude and mean-spirited, and the comedic community, which roundly responded with a “you really don’t get it,” have again reached an enormous divide. Journalists have even called for Wolf to apologize for her comedy, something we’ve seen in other countries. Both communities believe they are in the business of truth telling, that they speak truth to power. But what happens when comedians speak truth to journalistic power?
As scholars who study comedy and satire, we think journalists would do well to think about the truths that comedians are imparting about the journalism profession itself, something that seems to be lost in these performances and exchanges.
Comedians have no fear of telling journalists directly what they are doing wrong. Stewart told hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala he came on the show to tell them to their faces what he had repeatedly said “in occasional newspapers and television shows.” Why, then, are journalists surprised that Wolf would be so unflinching and unapologetic in both her language and her stance on issues of national importance as, say, truth in the White House press room? Proximity is not the issue here. The critique is on television every night.
What is more, satirists are not appearing simply for journalists’ amusement. When Carlson said to Stewart, “Wait. I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny,” Stewart bluntly retorted, “No, I’m not going to be your monkey.” While the correspondents this weekend might have preferred a more gentle-spirited critique, that opinion suggests a misunderstanding of what precisely political satire is, by definition, and the role that comedy plays in a democracy capable of directing a necessary spotlight onto its powerful institutions.
Satire is a verbal assault that passes judgment on those who have violated communal norms. And there is a function inherent in comedy that bears reminding; since Aristotle’s time, and in the present day, comedy allows a way into cultural criticism that can spark conversation. That satire allows a bit of scrutiny is easy to swallow, of course, when the object of criticism is politicians, especially norm-flouting ones like President Donald Trump. But journalists don’t get a free pass just because they are journalists.
Washington television journalists, in particular, are participants in power, not just witnesses to it. Satirists are intent on telling Washington journalists that they exhibit a too cozy relationship to power, as Wolf pointed out by noting that not only did journalists create Trump, they still profit from him — as corporations, but also personally.
Journalists rushing to the defense of Sarah Huckabee Sanders as “victim” of Wolf’s comedy is certainly “Exhibit A” in such a relationship. While most journalists deplore how the White House Communications Office treats them, they must realize the inevitability of their humiliation at the hands of Sanders’ routine lying. Why else is Sanders seated on the dais but to continue to suggest they can still “play well” together?
But such a defense is also the opportunity for journalists to defend themselves from the satirical critiques waged by Wolf. Fortress journalism, as media scholar Jay Rosen has called it, circles the wagons from any outside attack, as if those critiques would damage the entire reputation of the profession if left unchallenged. All the more reason for them to attack a female comedian for crossing lines when they refuse to do the same for the male president on the same grounds — after all, she mirrored the language and vulgarity of the current White House occupant.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, satirists want to impart one very specific truth: Comedy is not vulgar; politics is. Journalists and politicians may publicly abhor sex talk and naughty words yet are easily distracted from the ultimate vulgarity of harmful policies that require coverage and attention. As Wolf proclaimed in her very last, mic-dropping line, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”
What Stewart, Wolf and this contemporary crop of fearless satirists (from Samantha Bee and Robin Thede to Trevor Noah and John Oliver) embody is the idea that comedy is, and always has been, a symbiotic cultural force alongside journalism’s desire to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Comedy is cultural expression and, yes, often a painfully truth-telling window into complex challenges. Just don’t be surprised when those doing the afflicting come for the comfortable journalists, too.
Jeffrey Jones is executive director of the Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia and author of Entertaining Politics: Satirical Television and Civic Engagement. Caty Borum Chattoo is director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, and co-author, with Lauren Feldman, of the forthcoming A Comedian and an Activist Walk Into a Bar: The (Serious) Role of Comedy in Social Justice.
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