Inside USC’s Bovard Auditorium Thursday, people sat, doubled over in laughter, for almost an hour as The Onion head writer Seth Reiss and features editor Joe Garden discussed their work. During a presentation of the satirical newspaper’s most popular headlines, “Kobe Bryant Mourns Passing of Ball” and “Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity with New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory” were among the crowd’s favorites.
It was the question-and-answer session following the presentation, however, that proved to be the most interesting part of the night. As students and professors approached the microphone to grill Reiss and Garden, a peculiar trend took shape. People were curious about the writers’ thoughts on politics and the news. It was as if they believed that these two satirists could offer genuine journalistic insights into current affairs.
But who’s to say they can’t?
Over the last few years, the popularity of satirical news outlets — namely The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report — has been growing. In fact, these two TV shows are the only late-night programs that have maintained an increase in ratings among people 18-49 years old during the last few years. The Daily Show alone averages a viewership of 2.3 million, according to the May 2011 Nielsen numbers.
With satirical news’ increase in popularity, however, people have begun to ask whether these kind of programs should be considered bona fide news sources. Some people argue that satire has no such value. Its role is to criticize and its only lasting impact is either entertainment or disrespect. What’s more, Jon Stewart himself has denied he is a journalist, asserting that The Daily Show’s only purpose is to create comedy.
Though The Onion seems to mostly serve humor-related purposes, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are different. Part of a journalist’s duty is to increase the accountability of public figures by holding them responsible for their actions and identifying when they fail to fulfill their duties. These two shows do this regularly.
The Daily Show’s best display was in an episode that aired Dec. 16, 2010. In the episode, Stewart addressed the Republican filibuster of the Zadroga bill, a bill that would provide medical and financial help to 9/11 first-responders. This bill should have been seen as an undisputed attempt to thank our nation’s heroes.
Instead, Stewart pointed out that though Republicans had essentially “turned 9/11 into a catchphrase,” their antipathy to government-sponsored benefits was clouding their judgment and inhibiting the bill’s passage. He went on to comment that CBS, ABC and NBC had not even bothered to bring up the issue.
Even The Onion offers occasionally insightful critique. For example, a recent headline: “Disturbed Beltway Sources Report Congress Eerily Cooperative Today.”
Though satirical news outlets don’t perform all the functions of “real” news sources, they fulfill an essential journalistic duty to truth and accountability, which many traditional broadcast news outlets seem to have forgone.
In today’s fast-paced media world, we are rarely exposed to in-depth, constructive criticism that addresses the hypocrisies and failures of public figures. As a result, people are turning to satire as a replacement, because —whether it intends to or not — it does offer us “real” and useful news.
Sonali Chanchani is a freshman majoring in English.