One of the greatest political commentators, Joseph Heller once said that “while analyzing a political situation, political satire should be taken very seriously” (Daugherty 231). These words sound as true today as they did half a century ago when Joseph Heller wrote them. Satire has been used as a tool by the writers, playwrights, and poets to present their point of views and arguments in an effective yet simplistic way. It is hard to find an era where the effectiveness of satire was not exploited by the literary maestros. It is virtually impossible to develop a profound understanding of the Greek literature without reading Aristophanes’ satirical plays, which do a better job at recreating the life in ancient Athens than other literary works (Barrett 26). Satire – in the form of irony and humor – has a paramount role in the critique of social and cultural norms prevailing in a society. Mark Twain’s critique of society, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is still considered to be relevant and had long lasting effects on its audience (Arac 2).
Similarly, Voltaire’s work and his analysis of the French institutions, specifically his criticism of the role of France’s ruling class and their ill treatment of the peasantry, is considered to have sowed the seeds of French Revolution. The use of satire was not only helpful in achieving the desired change in the social set up but the effects of satire on the development of literature cannot be ignored either. Perhaps, the most important and significant playwright of the English language was Shakespeare. The extensive use of literary techniques such as irony, contrast, and exaggeration – considered to be important parts of satire – helped Shakespeare in developing a unique and engaging writing style. In the presence of scores of different critiques of the partition of India; Manto’s satirical critique of the partition is given special importance and attention. An important point to notice regarding the above-mentioned satire writers is that, that they were able to capture the attention of a large audience without compromising on the standard of writing or the profundity of criticism.
Many traditional writers used to alter their way of presenting their argument in order to resonate with a large audience; satire writers didn’t have to do that. With the evolution of information sources, newspaper and news TV came into being. The article writers became much more important, with their domain of work sometimes overlapping with the authors and book writers. However, the importance given to satire by newspaper publishers seems to be less than given by the book publishers. A major reason behind this is the notion of news media being a medium reserved for the more traditional and serious writing. People advocating for the minimization of satire in news media put forward a number of arguments, the most important being their concerns regarding the cynicism and skepticism it causes regarding the political process and social and economic institutions, mainly amongst the young audience. Although, this is a valid concern, however, satire should be given more importance in news media due to its ability to increase political efficacy amongst the general populous, instigating youth’s interest in the socio-political issues and because of the trust placed by the masses in the satire shows.
In the 21st century, extensive democratization has given special importance to the opinions of the general public. Along with this decision making power, extensive criticism regarding the politically uninformed populous affecting the political process negatively has come too. Political efficacy is generally the term used to describe a person’s political knowledge and ability to differentiate between different political candidates and their policies and agendas. Mock news shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which feature parodies and satire on socio-political issues, and their effects on the political efficacy have been a topic of discussion of various research studies and essays. One of these research studies compared the effect of watching a mock news show, The Daily Show, with watching late night CNN news, on political efficacy acquired by the viewer (Holbert, R. Lance, et al 22). The result of this study showed that the political information retained by the viewers was considerably higher with The Daily Show as compared with the CNN News.
This quality of satire was discussed by Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom in their book, Satire’s Persuasive Voice. According to the authors, satire is “unabashedly didactic and this is most clearly seen when it is conveying the same message as the dysfunctional mainstream media” (26). The increase in political efficacy not only increases the level of knowledge regarding the political processes but also increases the political participation and political engagement (Hoffman and Young 161). According to Satire’s Persuasive Voice, this persuasive effect is a direct effect of the straightforward and direct approach of mock news shows (31). The ability of mock news shows to grab attention also makes it an important tool in enlightening the American population about the bland topics such as foreign policy, which is not directly affecting them. This assertion was elaborately researched by Matthew Baum and it showed that the regular viewers of satirical shows had significantly more knowledge regarding foreign affairs than those who did not watch any news show (108).
Although the research study showed that the knowledge satire show audience was less than those who watched the traditional news regularly, the number of people following traditional news shows was far less. Even in the context of Pakistan, this effect seems to stand true. Comedy political shows seem to attract a lot of the audience which is generally alienated from national level politics. In a research study, it was concluded that political satire shows aired in Pakistan, increased political socialization (Nazir and Bhatti 7). Another important effect attributed to satire shows is their ability to compel their viewers to use hard sources of news to increase their political knowledge, this gateway effect increases the political efficacy of the less politically sophisticated audience; directly and indirectly (Xenos and Becker 319). Political satire shows attract the less informed political audience, increase their political efficacy by spreading information through interesting and entertaining analysis, which in turn increases their interest in traditional political shows and politics.
While talking about the political audience and specifically the less informed political audience, it is important to mention that most of this audience consists of young people. Young people of a country are considered to be the backbone of a country and the primary instruments of political, social and economic change. According to a research study conducted by PEW in 2007, the viewership of traditional news from 2002 to 2007 decreased drastically, with the audience for nightly network news down 46%, network news magazines down 54%, local news down 26%, and CNN down 28% (3). The sharpest decline, as expected, was seen amongst the 18-29 year demographic. Only 13% people aged 18-29, said they learned something new regularly from traditional talk shows. In contrast, 21% respondents, from the same age bracket, said they regularly learned something new from late night shows containing political comedy (5).
The increase in interest, amongst the youth, in comedy political shows have had noticeable and significant effects. As the sources of information for different ages have become different so has their point of views on different socioeconomic issues of grave importance. The friction between the points of views of people of different ages was seen during Brexit, where 64% of the people aged 50+ voted for leaving the European Union, while 75% people aged 18-25 voted for staying in European Union (Speed 2-3). Although there are scores of reasons for these differences, having different sources of gaining political knowledge seems to be an important one. As the audience is younger, it is also less opinionated and more fluid regarding its opinions. During the 2004 elections, an analysis of the relationship between the opinions presented in The Daily Show and their effect on the audience were measured (Morris 80).
This study showed that the evaluation of 2004 Presidential candidates was affected by their analysis done in the satirical show (Morris 101). Due to such strong effect of satire on the young demographic, using satire to teach political science to college students has also been proposed. According to college professors, employing satire in political TV shows and satire writing as a pedagogical tool for teaching college students instigates critical thinking and helps them in employing analytical approach towards different problems. In an extensive research study, it was concluded that “use of satirical material can deliver a jolt of insight and excitement to a class of politically disconnected young people” (Beavers 416).
However, the research study didn’t specify the type of satirical content helped in increasing the level of academic learning amongst pupils. An important observation that can be made while analyzing the audience of political satire is that although, a large chunk of the audience consists of the politically less sophisticated audience, however, this doesn’t stop the politically aware audience from paying attention to the content. The majority of the audience of The Onion, a newspaper which is considered one of the pioneers of political satire, consists of graduate school students (Quantcast.com). The presence of politically active and engaged demographic makes sure that the quality of the articles and content is up to the mark, in terms of quality and authenticity.
Before the invasion of Iraq, all the mainstream news networks working in the United States unanimously gave the verdict of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. However, with the passage of time, it became clearer to the American audience that the news reports on weapons of mass destruction were nothing more than irresponsible media reporting. The result of this was the increase in dissent with the mainstream media amongst the American population, this rise in dissent gave rise to media disassociation (Hwang 465). Due to media disassociation, the number of American citizens who list the internet as their primary source of news, ahead of the television news increased from 13% to 19% from 2002 to 2006 (Hwang 467). Perhaps, news analysts and columnists were affected the most due to this mistrust in mainstream media. Satire writers, largely because of their limited presence in mainstream media, weren’t affected as badly. The reliability and credibility of the news analysis presented in late night comedy and satirical shows have increased sharply. The difference between the trust placed by the audience on the news analysis of the traditional analysts and satirical analysis is most visible in the analysis of controversial news and issues (Warner 20).
However, the survey supporting the research study supporting this assertion was conducted in selected states and most of these selected states are considered liberal and lean towards the left side of political spectrum. The negative perception of the mainstream media in public’s eyes is not only because of its inability to provide accurate and well-informed news and research. But it extends to public’s perception of the mainstream media is biased and siding by a specific agenda. The mainstream media is also considered ineffective in extracting the details and important information in interviews by the general audience (Day 105). This dilemma can be explained through a dissection of the interview process which is adopted by the mainstream media today. The interviews, especially the ones which have celebrity politicians, have interviewers who are primarily concerned with finding mistakes and inaccuracies in the interviewee’s words. This leads to the person being interviewed, becoming more careful and less candid, which gives rise to the political correctness exhibited by virtually every person in mainstream media.
In stark contrast to this, interviews conducted in the satirical shows are franker and the attitude is less rigid, this leads to viewers rating the interviewee as more authentic and giving a more accurate picture (Day 106). Due to a very high number of traditional talk shows, show hosts face a competition in landing an interview with political figures and sometimes have to bend over backward and comply with the demands of the guest. On the other hand, late night satire shows, such as The Colbert Report, garner good ratings due to which political figures find appearing on these shows favorable for their public image. This frees the host of the pressures faced by traditional shows’ hosts. This liberty is restricted to soft news shows, however, satirical newspapers also enjoy a different kind of liberty regarding controversial topics. Sensitive and complicated political issues are either not addressed or addressed ambivalently by traditional newspapers, on other hand satire newspapers aren’t afraid of writing opinion pieces since they are not obliged to be politically correct.
The use of satire in news media still faces a lot of opposition from different spheres of writers and political analysts. A major concern is about cynicism and skepticism it gives rise to, amongst the audience. Caricature, which is a branch of political satire, was also shown to enhance the feelings of dislike of political process and institutions (Hogan 58). An in-depth analysis of Australian newspaper The People’s Choice showed that virtually all 500 politics-related cartoons published in the newspapers were critical of politicians (Hogan 29). The caricatures markedly generalized politicians and were conveying the message of “All politicians being venal and corrupt” (Hogan 35). Political institutions and political entities are joked about in satirical news shows and the tone used to joke about them is overwhelmingly negative. The rise of cynicism becomes an even more serious issue when the cynicism and skepticism are directed towards the democratic model and political activity instead of an individual. The coverage of Donald Trump in contemporary media, specifically satirical news media, has been criticized in this regard.
The cartoons targeting Trump, sketched by Lalo Alcaraz, show him as a Nazi leader and as a puppet controlled by the Russian president (Hills). The cartoons published in The New Yorker are similar in their presentation of Trump (Stokes). However, after the election of Trump, the criticism directed at Trump was shifted towards the electoral process. A considerable part of American public reported lower trust in the electoral process and procedural fairness in the presidential election after Trump’s election (Mickey et.al 21). Cynicism is portrayed in a negative manner in these arguments and skeptic attitude is automatically assumed to affect the civic participation adversely. However, this world-weary approach can also be beneficial for civic consciousness and is considered to be vital for politically motivating the masses.
A mediocre level of skepticism in a society regarding the political structures is shown to positively affect the participatory politics in a country, quantitatively and qualitatively. A research study showed that “medium to high level of cynicism enabled the politically inert middle class of a society to become more invested in the national level politics” (Brady et.al 275). This relation between cynicism and civic consciousness was most noticeable in people of age 19-25, which may also partially explain why satirical shows are successful in politically motivating the youth (Brady et.al 283). This effect is also present on an individual level, as people with higher levels of skepticism are shown to be more invested in the socio-political activities and are more passionate about bringing a change in status-quo (Xenos and Moy 708). So, we can conclude this by stating that although satire in news media causes cynicism, this cynicism is important for collective civic consciousness.
The use of satire has influenced the thought processes of the masses and has inspired great changes in the social and political settings around the globe. Satire and its practitioners have been instrumental in addressing issues of great concern. Without satire, it would be virtually impossible to understand the subtle nuances of the literary world. Political satire attracts an audience which is generally not interested in politics and does not take interest in traditional political shows. In democratic countries, the political knowledge of their general population directly affects their lives. General public assumes the role of a decision maker in a democracy and getting them interested in the political process will positively affect their decision-making ability. An informed voter base will make better-informed decisions which will positively affect the country. It is especially important to get the youth of a country involved in the social and political activities.
Young people are the instruments of change and are generally uninterested in the nuances of politics and social issues. Political satire shows can get the attention of the young population and make them responsible citizens. Surprisingly, the audience of television shows and readers of print news also place more trust on the analysis provided by satire shows and articles. They believe it to be propaganda free, thus news media should utilize this and give more importance to news media. A concern raised by the people who oppose the use of satire in news media is about how it can cause people to start distrusting the political process and become skeptical of the political institutions and personalities. However, a certain level of skepticism and cynicism is vital for political engagement and political cynicism increases political participation. The use of satire can improve the present condition of news media, where it is considered to be partially ineffective in engaging the audience in matters of real importance and has to resort to ‘manufacturing’ tabloid news to capture their attention.
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