We have a strange situation. The news has been overrun by comedians. John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee…. A lot of people are relying on comedians for their news, despite the comedians repeatedly saying “We don’t do news!” The term “comedic journalism” has even been invented to explain this apparently new phenomena: comedians doing news.
Why do the comedians keep resisting the label of journalism when they look suspiciously like they are doing journalism? The answer is simple.
It’s not journalism.
Close, but different.
All the claims of journalism, comedic journalism, or something new going on here are missing the mark. The current popularity of John Oliver or the Daily Show might be new, but satire is old. Very old. And it’s not journalism.
Imagine a cliché ye olde King’s court.
On one side of the throne is the herald. On the other side is the jester. The herald reads the news. The jester makes fun of it. The herald tells things as they are supposed to be. The jester tells things as they are not supposed to be. The herald proclaims the latest victory in battle. The jester points out that it was such a great victory that even the enemy is celebrating.
Satire isn’t like other forms of comedy, which is why people keep confusing it for journalism. Satire is about the real world. Satire is always, deep down, serious stuff. Humor isn’t even in the definition. Satire is a form of social investigation, a probing, a prodding, a pulling at the threads, trying to figure out what’s really going on underneath. Satire exposes our illusions, and cuts quick to the heart of how society really works. Satire baits the powerful into exposing their own absurdity, like when Bill Maher made a joke about Donald Trump, and Trump sued him. The issue at stake: was Trump’s father an orang-utan? Trump says no.
Satire can even tell the future:
Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over’
January 17, 2001 – The Onion
September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the financial crash hadn’t even happened yet. That’s the power of satire.
In contrast, journalism’s job is to report what happened. Simply. Objectively. Dispassionately. This can involve speaking truth to power, and it can involve reinforcing power. Satire, however, is always on the attack.
The herald and the jester might occasionally agree, but their jobs are very different. So why are people turning away from the herald, and towards the jester? The circumstances that would cause that to happen are not hard to figure out: people will prefer the jester when the herald’s truth sounds like bullshit, and the jester’s bullshit sounds like truth.
The heralds these days must have been speaking a lot of bullshit.
Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:
Watch John Oliver denying the repeated allegations of journalism. Here.
The Onion’s 2001 mock article on George Bush. Here.
Watch Bill Maher discussing his lawsuit with Trump. Here.
For some extreme cases of people not able to tell the difference between satire and journalism see literallyunbelievable.org.