This week the Rosenfield Program, as part of its Program in Public Affairs, hosted Dan McCue, assistant director of Alumni Relations, to speak about his M.A. thesis regarding the role of satire in society. The presentation Wednesday afternoon, entitled “When News Breaks, ‘The Daily Show’ Fixes It,” combined film clips of “The Daily Show” and programs like it with McCue’s commentary on how the clips illuminated essential aspects of satire.

What direction do you think some of these shows are going to go in the new administration? How are they going to deal with almost this ‘problem’ of Obama as candidate that they would be favorable towards?
I think the answer to that question comes out of what role does news satire play in our society. There are a few things that news satire does really well. One thing it does is lampoon newsmakers. So even though to the Obama administration, at the presidential level, there will still be stories at the national level of newsmakers violating what we consider appropriate behavior in our culture. And certainly what’s going on in the whole Illinois state government with Rod [Blagojevich] will be fodder for them, and the normal partisan bickering will be fodder for them, and the first steps that the Obama administration will make will be made fun of.
In fact, one of the particular things that “The Daily Show” has made fun of already here in the early days of the administration is the fact that some of Obama’s rhetoric about the economic situation and also about international relations sounds eerily like things that Bush said. Of course the media have been critical of the things Bush said, but when it comes out of Obama’s mouth, everyone seems to give him a free pass on that, except of course “The Daily Show.” So I’ll think they’ll be ok.

It seems like satire definitely does hold the media account
able to some extent, but does it actually help people become informed? I remember that there was a test that was administered to Daily Show viewers versus traditional news viewers that said they had a better grasp of “real news.”
There’s definitely a correlation between viewership and being informed about current events. To say there’s a causation, that “The Daily Show” will make you better informed about current events, that’s a dangerous one to make. The research that I looked at, combined with what I read about how satire functions, I think the reason that audience is better informed is because they’re better news consumers and fairly cynical as well.
The viewership does skew younger and does skew more to people being better informed about current events. The reason for that is that “The Daily Show” or The Onion, if they’re going to reference a news story, they need to make sure it has traction, that is, the story has lasted for more than one news cycle. If a story has legs, chances are you’ve heard about it, whether it’s on the internet or television or people have blogged about it or Twittered about it. When you see it lampooned, they’re taking that generally known information and presenting their commentary on it, in a satirical way. There are some stories on The Onion and “The Daily Show” that fall flat because the item they are referencing is not really known and therefore it’s not something that’s going to resonate with the audience.

It seems, though, in the profiles of “The Daily Show” that I’ve read that these people are sort of policy wonkish kind of people … who are really interested in being informed citizens. They’d like to find their own perspective on these things, so they have to kind of “know more” than their audience to some extent.
Sure, that’s a good observation. Satirists are making social commentary. The whole reason that they’ve chosen to present their case is because there’s some sort of implicit social norm that’s being violated. Rather than criticize in a straight ahead way, let’s take for example something like CBS misreporting information about Bush’s service. They had created this forgery of Bush’s military service. The way “The Daily Show” made fun of it was actually really clever: they related it to Bush’s misinformation about going into the Iraq War.
So in the satire, and this was reported by Stephen Colbert, he uses the language that Bush used, but was talking about the CBS case. It was a case of double irony. I would argue that this reaction from “The Daily Show” is saying that the media needs to be more diligent about its sources, and also that the media shouldn’t take what the president says at first blush.

So this exhibits how they’re coming from a perspective of trying to inject more knowledge into the public sphere, to some extent?
Right. But what’s interesting is that satire is very effective because you’re not just directly criticizing the person. It’s letting the audience make their own conclusions. The weakness as a means of rhetorical argument or affecting change is that there is ambiguity. Sometimes people don’t get the internal meaning. They take it at face value and it ends up coming up short as satire.
For example, “The Daily Show” lampoons the media often. In 2004, before the elections, Jon Stewart happened to appear on “Crossfire” with Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson. And as he came onto “Crossfire,” he said to Paul and Tucker, “stop what you’re doing, you’re hurting America, you’re bickering, and what America really needs you to do is report the news and debate policy.” And they’re like, “No, no, we debate facts!” And he said, no, “you bicker, you present one side, and then the other, and then you bicker.” And they didn’t take it too well.
Tucker Carlson in particular became very mean-spirited with Jon Stewart. At one point, he says to Jon, “Be funny.” And Jon says, “I’m not your monkey.” Jon clearly thinks that the media isn’t doing their job, but when he comes right out and says that, the media doesn’t take it too well. So satire is far more entertaining for the viewer, and much easier on the media, than trying to assert these social values out loud.

I guess I was a little conflicted about that moment. I wondered why people couldn’t just change the channel or turn off the T.V.
It’s a good question, and I would argue based on the audience for those three networks, CBS, FOX, and NBC, and I haven’t looked at the ratings recently, but you know, day to day the viewership is under a million a day. I would argue people are already peeling away, people don’t find the everyday programming of those shows to be relevant to their daily lives. I think what Jon was trying to do, and I hesitate to speak for him, but both he and the executive producer of “The Daily Show” have been interviewed about the incident on “Crossfire,” and they kind of made the decision on the cab ride over there that this was the tack they were going to take and the approach they were going to take, and they called it “naked reprobation” of “Crossfire” for being what they are. If you watch the clip on the internet, you’ll see how awkward it is: the audience is uncomfortable, Paul was uncomfortable, Tucker was uncomfortable, Jon was uncomfortable. We as humans do not like to get criticized, because we think we’re right all the time—reasonable, intelligent people.