By: Noah GoldFarb
Laughter is perhaps the best medicine – everyone knows that. Laughter can mend a broken heart, repair friendships, and help people through tough situations. But can laughter also heal a democracy?
In the past fifteen years, satirical news has exploded in popularity. From Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on Comedy Central to the popular online satirical news company The Onion, comedy has found its way into our democracy through a variety of forms.
With Jon Stewart, a man who has written the figurative book on satirical news casting, recently announcing his retirement, now seems like the proper time to take a look back at how this wave of comedians-turned-social-commentators has affected our country. As early as 2008, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press discovered that Stewart was one of the most admired journalists in the country.
We, as a society, need to ask ourselves how (and why) a comedian, who has always claimed that his show is meant to be more entertaining than informational, is so influential when it comes to staying connected to the world. Is this evidence of a glaring issue in the institution of modern journalism, or simply just a testament to the effectiveness of satire as a means of explaining the world around us?
To say that one or the other is correct would be oversimplifying the situation. Instead, we must accept that satire fills the holes in our democracy left by traditional journalism. While journalists can reveal facts, expose lies, and explain difficult situations, comedy can break down the facts in such a way that the audience can simultaneously understand the point, and laugh at it.
Stewart isn’t the only political satirist to make waves in recent years. Tackling print journalism, the fake newspaper The Onion has become immensely popular through its unrelenting mockery of our society. According to The Journal of American Culture’s Ian Reilly, The Onion and other similar fake news sources “frame civic issues within a larger political context usually ill-afforded in today’s condensed and often information-poor 24-hour news cycle.”
With fake news on a variety of subjects, The Onion’s stories dance between subtly offensive and totally lighthearted. The front page of their site might cover a story about a “local man” bragging about avoiding a popular song, right next to one joking about how the Baltimore riots will fail to create social change just like so many riots before it.
Of course, satire can on occasion go too far. Some topics are just too serious or too fresh to be laughed at, and lines can be crossed. While satirical news is supposed to supplement “serious” news in order to cover all aspects of our society, when it offends as opposed to poking fun, it can prove damaging to our democracy.
As with most forms of comedy, people often get offended when their beliefs or values are made the butt of a joke. Whether those people are rightfully offended is often up to debate, but when holding society up to a mirror, the satirist must realize that being offensive without making a point is entirely useless, and is counterproductive to their goal of helping people gain a new worldly perspective.
In January 2015, two members of a Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda entered the office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, and shot 22 people, 11 of whom died. Following this event, the entire world flocked (and rightfully so) to support Hebdo, declaring the shooting an unacceptable attack on freedom of speech that cannot be tolerated.
While this event served to rally the democratic world to stand up for their universal right to freedom of the press among other civil liberties, it also asked the question, what was Hebdo doing to make them the targets of such attacks? As the story unfolded, more and more people saw Hebdo’s controversial comics depicting Islam’s prophet Muhammad in a variety of offensive contexts.
There is never an excuse for such a heinous act as the one that was committed in Paris in January. With that being said, as fellow members of a democracy, it must be questioned what purpose these comics serve. What message is presented by a crude depiction of the sacred prophet of a widely-practiced religion?
No flaw of society is pointed out through these images. No lesson can be extracted from these cartoons. So, while the whole world was right to stand beside Hebdo after the attacks, it should also be noted that the type of satire used in the magazine was more useful for offending than informing, and does not reflect the spirit of the democracy that the #JeSuisCharlie supporters were eager to defend following the attack.
Satirical news is a powerful medium. When used appropriately, it can shed light on whole aspects of our society which are rarely seen otherwise. But, to support our democracy, we must act in accordance with it. That means entertaining the audience as opposed to alienating them, and perhaps making them slightly more informed instead of slightly angrier. It allows us all to take a look around, pop open our prescription bottles, and take a pill of the best medicine that money can buy.