For over two decades programmes like The Daily Show, a political news satire production, have positioned themselves as the antidote to a cable news landscape favouring partisan theatrics and politics served as entertainment.
While their content isn’t news in the traditional sense, TV satire shows have had the freedom to create a playful yet critical form of commentary that is unrestricted by journalistic conventions. Interestingly, their output is often aligned with the values of quality journalism practice, as it voices the concerns of citizens and acts as a watchdog over America’s political and media institutions.
All this made TV satire a viable platform to provide commentary on presidential elections. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart did just that in his acerbic analysis of the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. According to The Washington Post, Stewart’s monologues cut through the election noise and offered thoughtful and accurate impressions of the campaign. Consequently, the power of satire was realised and its position as a serious contender in the wider realm of political journalism was established.
Stewart’s retirement from TV satire in 2015 left a legacy of engaging political critique that has since been adopted by many other programmes. Fast forward to 2020 and a very different political landscape and president. TV satire’s reporting of the election simply failed to hit the same spot and make the same impact that it has in the past.
A tired format
TV satire’s lacklustre election reporting is, in part, due to Donald Trump’s immunity to ridicule. Over the last four years, he has embodied many of satire’s central characteristics including exaggeration, irony and stupidity. It has become increasingly difficult for satirists to skewer him. Whether accidental or on purpose, nothing, it seems, is more ridiculous than the man himself.
Instead, hosts like Seth Meyers (Late Night with Seth Meyers) and Trevor Noah (The Daily Show), spent much of their election coverage lambasting Trump and perfecting their impersonations of him. But the impersonation shtick is tired and outdated. While satirists would normally have their sharp critiques to fall back on, it seems that this approach has been hijacked by the cable news networks. Indeed, CNN and MSNBC have taken the president and his administration to task using the same successful method that TV satirists have been using for two decades: using video evidence to highlight political hypocrisy.
It seems that TV satire has experienced an identity crisis under the Trump administration. According to the head writer of The Daily Show, Dan Amira, this is because sarcasm – one of satire’s essential weapons - is now disarmed because “consumers of this brand of comedy are so horrified by Trump that irreverence can feel like betrayal”.
The stakes, he suggests, are now too high. The appeal of TV satire has been its ability to punch upwards against authority using sarcasm and irony. But in an attempt to maintain audience loyalty, some programmes have shifted their targets and begun to punch down towards ordinary citizens, and more specifically Trump supporters.
Back to the drawing board
In his regular Daily Show slot, Jordan Klepper attended Trump election rallies and conducted a series of sarcastic interviews with the president’s supporters. These segments were intended to convey the stupidity and small-mindedness of the interviewees. However, what they actually did was highlight an increasing sense of smug liberalism within the satirists and their audience. The clear inference was that they are were in command of better facts and greater insight than their right-wing counterparts. Not only does this reinforce political polarisation, but it also demonstrates how TV satire has resorted to cheap laughs over the sophisticated commentary it was once known for.
Of course, there were still examples of good practice. In his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver steered clear of the mainstream news agenda. Instead, he covered topics like immigration policy that were all but absent from the wider election coverage. However, his show was generally the exception to the rule, and TV satire’s performance in the 2020 election can only be described as insipid and ineffective.
So, as America contends with a new president-elect and the claims of election fraud are bolstered by Donald Trump, his supporters and some right-wing news organisations, TV satire needs a significant reboot. Trump’s refusal to concede the election aggravates an already divisive political landscape. A landscape where partisan media organisations and citizens are doubling down on support for their respective candidates. In this new environment of alternative political realities and alternative facts, TV satire needs to go back to what it was good at: earnest reporting that cuts through commercial and partisan news rhetoric and encourages us all to think critically about what politicians are asking us to believe.
Richard Thomas receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.
Allaina Kilby and Matt Wall do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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