What's wrong with American journalism 1
The satire landscape in the US has changed since Donald Trump moved into the White House. The late night shows have become more political. You get more attention. The tone is more urgent. In contrast to the classic news media, says the American cultural scientist Sophia McClennen, satirists such as Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee have found a clearer position towards the new government more quickly. How did you do that? And can American journalists learn something from them when dealing with Donald Trump? For years, Sophia McClennen has been investigating how American political satire works - and where the grievances in the classic US news media lie. A conversation about 24-hour news channels, critical thinking, and Donald Trump's hair.
SZ: In America, political satire seems to be experiencing a golden age since Trump was elected. What's going on there?
Sophia McClennen: Satire has been playing an increasingly important role here in the US since September 11, 2001. At that time, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had their shows one after the other on the Comedy Central channel, the satirical newspaper "The Onion" became a fixture and Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11" hit theaters. Since then, it has been felt that the satirists get to the truth better than the news.
What went wrong with the American news media?
That's the other part of the story. At that time, their quality had deteriorated significantly. They became more sensation-hungry, soon there were more opinions than information and critical analysis on television. And then in 2016 we had this extremely strange choice. The satirists analyze Trump better than the classic news.
What does "better" mean in this context? What are American satritists doing right?
Most people think that satire is ideological, either liberal or conservative. But actually it is like this: satire puts reason over nonsense, logic over stupidity. The satirist looks at what is going on in politics and says: Wait a minute, something is wrong. He tells people that the emperor has no clothes on. He questions things and shows why the viewer should do that too. Since Trump, this way of thinking has gotten very strong.
But journalists try that too. The newspapers have set fact checkers, they point out any incorrectness in the statements of the government, they speak explicitly of "lies" if they find any ...
But the classic news media found it very difficult to deal with the fake news allegations from the White House. They had to react to the accusation of bias and therefore they tried to show that they also listen to the "other side" and reflect other opinions. Just remember the debates about the number of visitors to the inauguration. There was nothing ideological about that number, it was mathematics. It wasn't about the media liking Obama more than Trump. The fact is: More people came to Obama's inauguration than Trump's. Point. You don't have to discuss it. But the news networks did.
Part of the problem is that news networks like CNN and Fox News have to fill up with news 24 hours a day?
Absolutely. There are a few turning points in the history of American news. One of them is the creation of the first all-news channel, CNN, which broadcasts news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are not new messages around the clock. To make up for this shortcoming, the figure of the commenting expert was invented, who has got a much bigger role in the news landscape than it should have. This "expert" expresses opinions, not information. And then he argues loudly with other "experts" for several minutes. Instead of information, the audience is presented with emotions. Critical thinking is not encouraged in this way. The next nail in the coffin for the news was the creation of Fox News, the first openly ideological news channel. Fox has the largest share of very loyal viewers: those who watch Fox are not watching any other news.
Can classic news journalism in the USA learn something from satirists?
On this issue, I am in favor of a very traditional division of labor. I think journalists should simply limit themselves to providing information again. And then after that the satirists can joke about it. During the election campaign, CNN reported on Donald Trump's hair and the fact that he stuck his ties on his shirt. This is not news. Far too little was about content, always just about the character traits of the candidates. As a result, citizens made ill-informed voting decisions.
Satirists like John Oliver started doing investigative journalism for this.
He has a whole team for it. When John Oliver reports on net neutrality, he does it better than the news channels. That would be their job.
Would people look at that? The great advantage of satirists is that they are funny. That is why the viewers do not switch off even with dry topics.
That's true. But journalists need to find more fun ways to present their information. You can work with visualizations or formulate lively. That doesn't mean they have to become satirists. The problem with satire is that it is always on the verge of cynicism. And nobody wants our main news sources to be cynical.
It is already the case that American political satire tends to come from the left politically. Do you think late night comedians can manage to reach the other side of the political spectrum?
Probably not, no. There is research into how many Republicans and how many Democrats watch late night shows. At least this particular format seems to appeal more to people who describe themselves as independent or left-wing. Fox also has a satirical show. But it's not particularly funny. There are studies to show that Republicans do not appreciate some satirical remedies, especially irony. You think more emotionally than rationally. Unfortunately, this also means that they are not very interested in facts and, if they believe something wrong, they are not convinced otherwise by evidence. There is also that on the left, but not to the same extent. That is very bad for the political development of the country.
That sounds very depressing.
The only good thing is that there are generational differences in this regard. Younger people are apparently more skeptical, they don't believe everything they read on the Internet because, unlike the baby boomers, they grew up with it. When I speak to a lot of baby boomers in front of an audience, I often say, "Your generation is still killing us all."
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