YW 87 – Sophia McClennen: ‘Is Satire Saving Our Nation?

YW 87 – Sophia McClennen: ‘Is Satire Saving Our Nation?

Today’s Young Wealth Show sees Professor Sophia McClennen join Jason Hartman to discuss many of the issues arising in her book, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? These include the rise of satire, the changing values of Generation Y and the development of American news broadcasting, with a particular focus on the role Fox News plays in our society.

 

Key Takeaways
01.17 – Sophia McClennen describes how the role of satire is changing in today’s world.
04.00 – When traditional forms of news media were letting us down, the satirists just came and filled a gap.
06.44 – The establishing of Fox News in 1996 really changed the way American news media was viewed.
10.33 – What impact do these over-opinionated, over-affiliated news channels have on those watching?
12.45 – The way we’re being taught to think is changing the way we deal with topics that affect so many different aspects of our lives.
16.34 – Like in so many cases, we can learn a lot from considering demographical patterns.
21.09 – Jason Hartman brings the discussion round to the recent mid-term vote.
27.16 – For more information, head to www.SophiaMcClennen.com

 

Mentioned in this episode
Is Satire Saving Our Nation?: Mockery and American Politics by Sophia McClennen

Tweetables
News production is now so weak it’s no surprise that satirists are taking over.
America needs to draw its own conclusions more, rather than being spoon-fed opinions.
Are your political views your own, or those you were taught?

 

Transcript

Introduction:
This show is produced by the Hartman Media Company. For more information and links to all our great podcasts, visit www.HartmanMedia.com

Welcome to the Young Wealth Show, where you’ll truly learn how to make, spend and invest money for an awesome life. Get the real life stuff that wasn’t part of your school curriculum. Young wealth gives you innovative new ways of dealing with your finances, as well as the skills and tools you’re going to need to survive and be successful out on your own. Let the Young Wealth Show be your GPS to take you from clueless to clued in. Here’s your host, Jason Hartman, with Young Wealth.

Jason Hartman:
It’s my pleasure to welcome Sophia McClennen to the show. She is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University and she’s author of Is Satire Saving Our Nation?: Mockery and American Politics – great title! Sophia, welcome, how are you?

Sophia McClennen:
I’m doing well, thanks for having me on your show.

Jason:
My pleasure. So, wow, this is an interesting angle on political discourse and the media landscape, it’s pretty unique. Tell us more about it.

Sophia:
Well, it starts by noticing the major role that people like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been playing, and shaping political discourse. It’s the fact that you can’t really wake up and drink your coffee and go on Facebook and not see somebody posting a clip from one of those shows from the night before. What exactly is going on and why is satire so central? We’ve seen satire emerge all the time in the face of political crises because it serves as a really great way of calling attention to folly and silliness and mistakes that are happening. Today’s satire is a lot more powerful than that, and that was part of what we wanted to try to figure out.

Jason:
So why is it more powerful?

Sophia:
One of the ways it’s more powerful is that it’s now the first source of news, which was never the case before. If you were reading your Jonathan Swift or your Mark Twain, you already knew what was going on, right? This was sort of a welcome comedic take on debates that you were familiar with. It turns out today that a lot of people get their news first from Colbert and Stewart and from The Onion and other sources like that. That’s a big shift.

Jason:
It sure is. How long have they been around now? It feels like I want to say eight years or so? At least in terms of being famous and very successful, or is it longer? Maybe it’s longer than that..

Sophia:
Yeah, it’s definitely longer than that, but you’re right that there’s a certain kind of critical mass moment that happens when Stephen Colbert breaks out and has his own show in 2005, and then in 2006 rose President Bush to his face at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner – that was a very big moment for Colbert and his career. Of course, The Onion’s been around a lot longer, but again, it was The Onion after 9/11 that was one of the primary sources for providing comic relief and another perspective on what was happening. I think you’re correct in noticing that this momentum is probably about a decade old – it really kind of starts after 9/11.

Jason:
What’s going on with the major media landscape? I remember a comment on Facebook recently on a John Stewart video, one of my friends just said that this is her favorite news source. I used to think that’s really immature, that’s not real news, but then I looked at the piece he did on Ron Paul several years ago and I thought ‘This is the best piece on this topic.’ He was really the only guy that made sense so it’s hard for me to say it’s not real news, you know?

Sophia:
Right. Without going into way too much detail, there’s a lot of ways in which the contemporary news media just isn’t offering our citizens the information they need. Whether we’re talking about the reduction in actual journalists and fact-checking, the way that the news is produced is a lot weaker than it ever has been. That’s one really important piece of it.

The other side, like you said, is that the satirists are finally bringing in things that no-one else wants to talk about because the news media has become so much more about entertainment and hype and the production of fear and drama than it has been about information. I’m not a millennial, although I think millennials are the best generation our country’s seen in a long time. I grew up on Walter Cronkite, and that was a different kind of news then to what we have coming off from the networks or the 24/7 cable channels. It turns out that the satirists are filling the gap and they’re offering their viewers more practical information and better critical reasoning than any other TV news sources.

We have study after study after study that proves that if you watch Stewart and Colbert, you know more about contemporary politics than if you watch cable news, and so it’s just conclusive that these guys are doing a better job.

Jason:
So what’s going on with the media? It seems like we just hear the same regurgitated stories from ever media outlet. Of course, they have a different spin on them – it seems like CNN is really just in the business of manufacturing the news a little too much, or trying to just milk every little thing out of stories where there’s nothing there to say sometimes. We just have to wait until things develop a little bit more. It’s the same corporate stuff all over the world, it’s not just even in the US, it’s everywhere. Thank God for the Internet that offers some alternatives.

Sophia:
Right, well we know that most mainstream news comes via five different corporations, period. There’s a lot of overlap and there’s not the same kind of competition in the marketplace that we might want, but we also know other things. Once news became a 24/7 thing, so once CNN started and they actually had to fill that space, it turned out to be very bad for news because they had to make up stuff, like you said. They had to figure out how to fill all those gaps, and one of the things that happened was the production of the soap opera quality of news – “Stay tuned, we have something you have to hear!” It really just feels like a soap, right?

Jason:
Yeah, when did that start? Is there a time-frame you can put on that?

Sophia:
CNN was like the only player in town, and then MSNBC pops in and the big shift that we talk about in the book is 1996 when Fox News is established. Fox is really the first news channel that was established with an overt political party affiliation. It changed everything. People forget that MSNBC used to have Ann Coulter on it. It became Lefty after Fox was founded.

Jason:
Okay, so MSNBC was a reaction to Fox, but I’m curious – tell us how Fox had a political affiliation. Is that actually hard fact?

Sophia:
Yeah, it’s not subtle at all. Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox, had basically been a campaign strategist for every one of the last four Republican Presidents, or however many. Murdoch wanted a station, he said ‘There are people in this country that are dying to get news information that aligns with their values, and this is what this station is going to do’. It was never subtle. If you’re at all interested, there’s a ton of great books on it with clear research.

The point is that they were never subtle, and then they came out with the tagline ‘Fair and balanced’. People will be interested to hear that in Britain, they were trying to sue them for using that phrase because it was so clear that they were not either fair nor balanced. We have lots and lots of data on Fox News’ misrepresentation of Democrats, of Obama, and then when they get caught making these mistakes, they will tweet apologies, which is hilarious because we all know that their viewers are not on Twitter. It’s not a subtle thing at all.

As I mentioned, MSNBC had been obviously been in existence prior to Fox but it became more Left as kind of a counter to Fox, which of course, I think isn’t that good for news either.

Jason:
Interesting. Well, it’s the whole point of news that it shouldn’t have any agenda. MSNBC is obviously so far to the Left. I listen to the rants from their hosts and back in the day, it was all ‘I hate George Bush’. That was all you could really get out of it! I agree with you that Fox appears to be to the Right, but I’ve got a Libertarian friend who thinks that Fox is just a conspiracy. He thinks that it’s a way to not have a vaccuum. I don’t know if you’ve heard, I had a show guest on a while back talking about Michael Moore and how he is funded by, amazingly, Right-wing groups. If we look above the fray, it’s this concept of ‘nature abhors a vaccuum’ and if you look at what’s happened on the Middle East – okay, we took out Saddam and then it gets worse, right?

This controlled opposition concept, that’s basically what he thinks Fox is. I don’t know if he’s right, it’s just his theory, but he’s got some pretty interesting back-up on it that I can’t remember.

Sophia:
He should look up a book called The Fox Effect. There really is a lot of pretty hard data on this. The thing that you mentioned before that’s the key is the word ‘ranting’ when you were talking about MSNBC. The ranting that happens on both Fox and on MSNBC, oh, and I have a great anecdote about Fox. It turns out that Sean Hannity has a portrait of Obama burning the Constitution that he paid $100,000 for. These are the kinds of things that we’re talking about, this is just ridiculous.

Anyway, what I was saying is the ranting is really connected to what we call the rise of the pundit. The existence of all of these folks on these channels, giving us their opinions about the news, is incredibly bad for our democracy and incredibly bad for the critical thinking of anyone watching these shows. Here’s how the different things happen. If you’re watching the show, even if they have two opposing positions, you’re going to align with the person who’s position you agree with, right? Instead, though, of thinking through the issues in a critical fashion, you just get partisan. You get worked up and you’re like ‘I cannot believe Hannity just said that’. None of the kind of thinking that happens when you get worked up like that is good for democracy. We want to get less emotional and think about things clearly.

Interestingly, it’s satire that’s doing a better job because it’s saying ‘Did they really say that?’ Of course, the satirist doesn’t tell you what he or she thinks outright, they say ‘Look at this, and look at that and look at this other thing’ and you’re watching and you’re like ‘Oh, I have to draw my own conclusions here’.

Jason:
That is really interesting. That’s probably your major thesis, right? That is really quite interesting. The two major and most famous satirists – most people think they’re to the Left, right? Aren’t Colbert and Stewart Liberal?

Sophia:
I mean, I think Colbert is a trickier character to pin down completely because he’s a very serious Catholic. I don’t think Stewart’s politics are subtle; he’s definitely on the Left. The thing about this is that you could say, as Colbert puts it, “the facts have a Liberal bias”. We have really odd moment in US history where the consistent distinction between Conservatives and Liberals, or Conservatives who don’t want to spend a lot of money on social welfare, and Liberals who think we should be helping people up. That kind of conflict isn’t really at the heart of what we’re sometimes talking about.

We’re talking about people having ridiculous fights about guns, we’re talking about people having pretty intense battles over whether we should be teaching Creationism in schools. I have a 4th grader and a 6th grader and I’m like, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ If you want to teach Creationism, that can happen on Sundays in your churches, but in school I’d like science. This is where some of the real debates are happening.

You could say ‘Oh, the Right believes these things’, but in this country, we used to really care about a separation of church and State and other things like that, so I think that’s where some of the debates have really shifted over time and gotten much more emotional.

Jason:
Well, oddly you say we used to really care about separation of church and State, but don’t we have more separation than we’ve ever had? It sure would seem that way to me when you look back at the Scopes monkey trial and you look back at the 10 Commandments being everywhere. God forbid a teacher, and I said God forbid just to throw that in for you, by the way! See, I’m into satire here too! If a teacher has a Bible on his or her desk in a school nowadays, the ACOU is going to be all over them like a cheap suit, just if it’s sitting there. Not even if they’re opening it.

Sophia:
Yeah, well Creationism is a tricky thing because there’s about 14 States right now that have it consistently as part of their school curriculum, so if you were sending your child to school, you would actually have to deal with the fact that they were being taught that there was a higher being that created the planet. That’s pretty weird, I would say. You’re right about the fact that at some level, there are certain interesting things that happen in public schools where teachers can’t openly push a particular religion but oddly, like I said, when it comes to science, we’ve been seeing a really weird battle over what can be taught in the science curriculum. That’s getting us away from it, but –

Jason:
Yeah, it was interesting with the documentary with Ben Stein called Expelled. Did you happen to see that?

Sophia:
No.

Jason:
Oh, you’d love it. It’s interesting, check it out.

Sophia:
Well, both Stewart and Colbert, for instance, have gone right out and said ‘Hey, how about we have this crazy idea that the scientists tell us about the science of what’s happening with climate change, for instance?’ They’ll show clips of politicians saying ‘I’m not a scientist but I think it’s cold out!’ They remind us that we have these folks that are, in fact, experts on it and we should probably listen to them instead, right? Stuff like that.

Jason:
Okay, I don’t want to get partisan here, I think I know where your politics are, and mine are on the Libertarian side, in the interest of full disclosure. I’m not Republican, not Democrat, just Libertarian.

So who are the five major companies that are running the global media? We’ve got News Corp, we’ve got Viacom and we’ve got Turner, his enterprise.

Sophia:
And then there’s an Italian company, Bertelsmann.

Jason:
Yeah, that’s right, Bertelsmann, I forgot about them. A lot of people think that it’s the old idea of divide and conquer – the fact that we’ve got these few major players that really just run the global media landscape; it’s sort of in the interest of the powers that be to keep people distracted with these smaller issues. Some liken it to a wrestling match on television, where this is just almost like entertainment. It’s info-tainment, maybe, and it’s like a distraction from the bigger issues. I just can’t believe how low quality the American media is. You turn it on and we’re talking about pop culture and the Kardashians and all this stuff. If there’s one major incident, you think that’d be the only thing going on in the world. It’s crazy how few stories they cover.

Sophia:
You’re absolutely right, and that’s where the Internet comes in to offer a welcome relief from all of that. And interestingly, where satirical sources on the Internet come in, one of the things that we’ve found that’s really fascinating is that folks are always really nervous about the millennial generation. They think this is a generation of entitled, lazy kids that are going to suck up resources in our country. There’s a lot of good data, though, about this generation, and one thing we know is that millennials don’t just take what’s been told to them and believe it.

They have a high filter for spam, let’s say. If they see something on their newsfeed on Facebook or if it comes across Twitter, they don’t just necessarily forward it and believe it. They’ll check it and they’ll check it because they can, which is really exciting. Their whole idea of the structure of information is that they will tend to question it first, which is very good for democracy. When you go back to being worried about the news, what you find out is that millennials are already always getting more than one viewpoint on things, and that’s a good thing. It’s because they’re navigating more than one source, and because they often have their computers open while they’ve got their TV on and they’re looking at their phone.

Someone will say ‘Oh dude, did you hear that? That’s not true’ or whatever. It all happens so quickly for them, whereas my Mom who is not likely to listen to this, so I can say this, is the one who will send me this spam message or the email that says ‘Don’t eat this cheese that’s in your refrigerator because it’s going to kill you’, or all those crazy emails. The generation that’s going to do that is older.

Jason:
So why do you think Gen Y is the best generation? I’m a Gen X-er, so I’m not a Gen Y-er, but why do you think they’re so great?

Sophia:
Yeah, we’re both Gen X-ers and one of the things that I’ve found in my research is that there’s an interesting synergy when Gen X and Gen Y get together. Gen X is fundamentally skeptical, right? We have a tendency to be skeptical of the system. Gen Y is also, but they’re a lot more hopeful. They have a lot more enthusiasm and community organizing than our generation did. One thing we know is that in Gen Y, over 60% of that generation consistently does community volunteering and despite the fact that everybody talks about poor voter turn-out, they’re voting at a higher percentage of their demographic than has historically been the case.

The other thing that’s interesting is that this is a generation that’s 43% people of color. They have a very different experience of what it means to be an American, what it means to live in this country, and they’re the first generation that’s really going to be that diverse. So there’s a lot of ways in which this is an exciting generation that I think has a heck of a lot of potential. They’ve also had a hard time because they’re disproportionately unemployed. The unemployment figures skew towards them, they have much higher debt than any other young generation like that, which is meaning that they understand the economy in fundamentally different ways. I graduated and I had no debt. The average student graduates with about $21,000 in debt today. These are big differences.

Jason:
We can thank the Government for ensuring student loans for that one, so yeah, they are fundamental differences. So it makes them better because they’re more diverse, they’re skeptical but hopeful at the same time. I wonder why they came out that way? Why wouldn’t they just be skeptical?

Sophia:
I don’t know. I’m kind of fundamentally skeptical so I find it very interesting. I think there’s a number of things that have happened. One of the things is that social media, in fact, has created a sense of community among this generation that folks like us don’t quite get. So it is not at all unusual for mass texts to go out and students to decide ‘Okay, we’re going to go and protest this’ or say ‘Let’s all meet and talk about this’. There’s a sort of energy and in fact, a commitment to human connection in this generation that we know Gen X didn’t have, interestingly.

Jason:
On the recent mid-term vote, what role did satire play, if any?

Sophia:
Well you know what, I think the thing is that satire really mirrored what needed to be said, which was that the Democrats were disappointing. The fact is that when we were going into the lead-ups, sure, the satirists were mocking some of the Republican efforts to reach out to millennials, some of the silly campaign ads. They were also mocking Democrats too, and I think they were really disappointed to see the strange ways in which certain demographic candidates were trying to distance themselves from Obama. They were like ‘What is that? How does anyone have any faith in you if you want to do that?’ And that, of course, is tied into the idea that they just wanted to win. But the satirists made it seem like these people just had no integrity.

Different satirists’ positions seem to suggest you’ve got to vote because voting is essential to our democracy, but the vote is more of a NO to this candidate than a YES to another. It definitely wasn’t an exciting election in that sense. There were certainly some exciting governors’ races and Senate races, and Stewart went and spent the week in Texas with Wendy Davis, and things like that, but overall I think the satirists reflected what was going on in politics, which was frankly pretty depressing.

Jason:
Yeah, no question about it. So just give that main idea again, just explain that maybe a little bit more. I want to make sure people really get that before you go, because the concept of Hannity and Colmes, for example. You’ve got one on the Left, one on the Right, everybody sides with what they already believe. I personally think politics are just hereditary.

Sophia:
Well, you’re right, actually. That’s true, there’s a lot of research to prove that too.

Jason:
Speak to that, if you would, actually. That’s a little tangent, but I’d love to hear what you think about that.

Sophia:
Well I can tell you why because I get all this hate mail that’ll come to me from Conservatives who call me a Lefty Professor who’s going to indoctrinate her students. One of the things that’s interesting, of course, is that I don’t actually teach satire in my classes. The whole thing is somewhat silly.

Jason:
But is your Leftist view throughout your materials?

Sophia:
No! I’m teaching human rights, right? I teach conflict resolutions so I don’t actually teach courses on these topics per se, but let’s suppose I did. Let’s suppose I walked into class and I said ‘Oh, this is the thing and this is how you should see the world and blah blah blah’. Well, that could be scary! Any parent might say ‘Wow, I really don’t want my kid to be exposed to those kinds of views’. One of the things that happens, and this came out shortly after 9/11 but there’s a lot of research to prove it, is that for better or worse, Professors have absolutely almost no power of any kind over their students’ opinions. Research proves that your politics are very deeply coded to the family you were raised in, and there’s even more specific research on what happens if Mom’s a Democrat and Dad’s a Republican and you’re a daughter – you’ll be a Republican. If you’re a son, you’ll be Democrat, and stuff like that.
Really, political affiliation starts at home.

Jason:
Yeah, it sure does. People do follow their parents’ affiliations, I think. I think that’s pretty well stated, but explain your thesis again, if you would. I just want to hear that one more time before you go because I think that’s a really interesting way to look at it.

Sophia:
Well, really, what the book is about is ‘Is our democracy stronger for the presence of satire today, or not?’ Does satire turn us all into cynics who don’t care and laugh at people, or does it turn us into people who want to make our country better? What happens is that satire, in fact, gives you the critical tools you need to draw your own conclusions because it never spoon feeds you what to think, for one. The second thing that it does is it always asked the audience not to give up. That’s one of the most exciting things about satirists.

They’re not coming out there and going ‘Oh brother, look at these politicians, I can’t believe it, they’re doing this again’. What they do is they say ‘Are you really going to let the debate be framed this way? Are you guys really not going to go out and vote to try to make a difference?’ At some basic level, if they have a partisan or an agenda, the agenda is to get people to formulate their own opinions and act on them.

Jason:
And so when people side with one side or the other, if they have two people on the show, they side with that person and they get all worked up about it. But with satire, it sort of comes in below those defenses, right? So they’re not all worked up and maybe they can think more clearly if they’re laughing about it a little bit, right?

Sophia:
Right. So all of these, let’s say, tools that the satirist has in his or her toolkit are the kinds of tools that help you be a smarter citizen because they use puns, they use figurative language. They don’t say the exact thing. They don’t come out and say ‘Wow, can you believe that Nancy Pelosi is so depressing?’ Instead, Stewart refers to her as ‘petty woman’, which is funny, and then it makes you think ‘Right, so what’s behind the hypocrisies behind some of Pelosi’s positions?’

Instead of saying to his audience ‘Nancy Pelosi is really hypocritical’, he shows you that and he uses comedy to add puns to it and other kinds of creative uses of language and comedy, and the audience has a good time and has to think critically to decipher it.

Jason:
Very good. Give out your website, if you would, Sophia.

Sophia:
It’s www.SophiaMcClennen.com, so that’s pretty easy.

Jason:
Yeah, pretty easy, just your name.

Sophia:
Yes.

Jason:
Yes, and closing thoughts?

Sophia:
I think the thing that makes this book potentially interesting to your listeners is to really consider what it teaches us about millennials, because I think there’s a lot of negative images of this generation and the book offers a lot of other views of how millennials in fact may be a lot more hopeful for our nation than we think.

Jason:
Fantastic. Sophia McClennen, thanks for joining us.

Sophia:
Thanks for having me!

Outro
This show is produced by the Hartman Media Company, all rights reserved. For distribution or publication rights and media interviews, please visit www.HartmanMedia.com, or email [email protected]
Nothing on this show should be considered specific personal or professional advice. Please consult an appropriate tax, legal, real estate or business professional for individualized advice. Opinions of guests are their own, and the host is acting on behalf of Platinum Properties Investor Network Inc. exclusively.