The News is Serious Business. It’s Hilarious.

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.

It’s satire.

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.

 

 

© Under Obvious, 2016.

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Is Post-truth True?

Whenever you say, “I live in a post-truth world.” you prove yourself wrong. You can say “we”, you can say “they”, but you can’t say “I”.

Why?

“Post-truth” is used to describe a world in which facts don’t matter. Emotion trumps truth. Yet, to say “post-truth” means that you care enough about the truth to point out the truth of post-truth, and that you have enough truth to decide that post-truth is true, all of which is very un-post-truth of you. Therefore, every time you describe our age as post-truth, you in some small way disprove yourself. Unless of course you are only using the word “post-truth” as an emotional wrecking ball, in which case you just proved post-truth is true.

It gets worse.

The sudden popularity of the word “post-truth” may simultaneously create and destroy the world it describes. Let’s start with the creation – “post-truth” leading to less truth.

1) Dividing the world into two eras, a “post-truth” and a pre-Trump “truth”, obscures the truth. Politics has been theatre for some time. Remember the Iraq war? Society and the media drifted off into a fantasy land of WMD and Al-Qaeda connections. In 2005 Stephen Colbert coined “Truthiness” to point out the same thing. The word “post-truth” was coined in 1992 by a writer describing what he called “Watergate Syndrome”: a preference for wilful ignorance.

Trump’s so-wrong-it’s-not-lying style is also not new. It’s called bullshit. That’s “bullshit” in the technical sense of the term. In 1986, Harry Frankfurt wrote “On Bullshit” pointing out the kind of talk where the concern is not with truth or untruth, but with impact. Trump is a bullshitter par excellence. And Bullshit is an art form as old as humanity.

2) If you believe the other side cares about truth, then you will try engage with them. But if you think the other side has gone “post-truth”? The solutions become rather different.

Drugs?

Hugs?

Bullets?

Yet both sides seem to believe in truth. We have at least two big problems that will get worse if “post-truth” becomes a conversation stopping label:

  • Historically, social networks have underpinned all manner of bizarre rumors. What’s new is that we are in a world of global hyper-rumors, spreading through splintered networks which never listen to each other.
  • On the right are many people who can be described as having a “Right-wing Authoritarian” personality which is defined by hostility, conformity, and over-submission to authority. Finding the truth consists of listening to the leader, copying your neighbor, and kicking the crap out of the enemy. The rise of post-truth represents not the decline of a concern about truth, but the mobilization of a block of people who are very easily misled. And when they’re led by a bullshit artist…. Some one has to keep them in touch with reality.

3) Point out all the bullshit and people will see bullshit everywhere. Trust in all sources of media will fall. Where will these people go? Some will retreat to the people they trust: their social circle, the world of hyper-rumor.

Now for the destruction. “Post-truth” reveals an extraordinary concern with truth. Fact checkers are popular. The big online players may start putting “truth” into the algorithms. The need for critical thinking skills, real journalism, and verified facts is being spotlighted like never before.  A fish doesn’t care about water until it’s on land. We didn’t care about truth until Trump.

In summary “post-truth” reveals the power of language. Naming is an act of creation. Not only of a word, but of a reality. What world the word “post-truth” will help create remains to be seen. If we are lucky, “post-truth” will destroy post-truth.

 

Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

Watch Colbert on Post-truth vs Truthiness, plus some examples of a post-truth world in action. Here.

The Nation revisits 1992’s lesson on post-truth. Here.

Watch Harry Frankfurt discussing bullshit. Here.

Bob Altemeyer’s book on authoritarian personalities. Available for free here.

 

© Under Obvious, 2016.