The Six O’Clock Satire

“Join, or Die” is credited as the very first editorial published in the United States. Many scholars believe the original design was meant to mirror a map of colonial America.

Story by Elliott Kennedy
Photo by Will Kanellos and Kyle McKee

Skip the headlines. Change the channel on breaking news. Flip past sections A through D and forget about six o’clock on the dot. Stop reading that reporter’s exclusive scoop and look to a cartoonist for the real deal: In other news today, Obama cares about a new cause. Newt opened up on national television. Mitt happens. Ignore the anchors and listen to a comedian. Better yet, listen to a comedian who acts like an anchor. Stewart has replaced Sawyer; Colbert is the new Cronkite.

With the proliferation of technology, Americans increasingly view comedic outlets as viable, even reliable news sources. Rather than learn about politics and social issues by sifting through dense columns of black and white, we look to more colorful sources for both information and entertainment.

The reasons behind the shift are as vast as they are vague, but The Atlantic correspondent Mark Bowden speculates that a lack of trust in mainstream media is one of the driving forces. In his 2009 article “The Story Behind the Story,” Bowden writes that what once made the news so valuable was “the mission and promise of journalism—the hope that someone was getting paid to wade into the daily tide of manure, sort through its deliberate lies and cunning half-truths and tell a story straight.”

But not anymore.

The value of the straight news story is easily lost in the battle between news organizations for higher ratings and greater readership—a battle fought as fiercely as politicians dueling for the presidency. According to Bowden, the purpose of journalism is no longer to disseminate the facts, nor to “educate the public, but to win.”

Enter the jokesters.

While politicians and television reporters alike struggle for top titles, comedians such as Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show have stepped into the role of public educator, exposing important issues—with flare. Unlike their journalistic counterparts, these pseudo-anchors feel no need to abide by a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to news. In fact, both Colbert and Stewart routinely place “just the facts” news sources in outrageous contexts. They opt to use parodies and sarcasm to expose points often obscured by the legalese, complex court proceedings, and monotone speakers characteristic of more traditional news outlets like C-SPAN.

While popular in today’s culture, this amalgam of information and humor is nothing new. Twenty-two years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin drew what has been credited as America’s first political cartoon. Published in the May 9, 1754, edition of Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, the image depicted a snake chopped into eight segments, representing the lack of unity between the colonies. Three simple words were emblazoned at the bottom of the page: join, or die. In his book, The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons, Donald Dewey explains that Franklin’s cartoon was “re-circulated in subsequent years as a rallying point for the colonists in their struggles against the British.”

Franklin’s call to action was indirectly articulated through imagery. More than 150 years later, artist James Montgomery Flagg (who also illustrated the iconic “I Want You for US Army” recruiting poster) ditched the Founding Father’s implicit style, favoring a more blatant approach in his cartoon titled, “The cartoonist makes people see things!”

An interpretation of James Montgomery Flagg’s “The Cartoonist Makes People See Things!” The cartoon was first published in the 1919 book The War in Cartoons.

Published in 1919, the work shows a self-portrait of Flagg dressed in an artist’s smock. He looks disdainfully down at an old man, who, sitting on a stool and staring into a mirror, represents a defeated Kaiser of Germany. Gawking back at the vanquished ruler is a skeleton, its mouth agape to expose a clear view of skull and spine. Published at the close of World War I, Flagg’s cartoon aimed to express war’s extreme violence and lack of morality. Taken in a larger context, the cartoon, and especially its caption, serve as a general framework for the basic principle of editorial cartooning and satirizing: make a point.

According to Lucy Caswell, faculty emeritus at Ohio State University Libraries, the political cartoonist’s job is much greater than just drawing a picture. In her paper, Drawing Swords: War in American Political Cartoons, Caswell says that early political cartoons needed to be “gestural, functioning as an assertion of defiant independence and protest against government.” Today, the job of an editorial cartoonist or television satirist remains fundamentally unchanged from its revolutionary past.

“We want to rebel against authority. From the Boston Tea Party to the Occupy movement, we always have and probably always will,” says Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant, an adjunct instructor for the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication and award-winning humor author. “Political satire is a way for the common man to get attention and regain power.”

Early in America’s history, literate colonists were rare, making the use of metaphorical imagery essential to getting an artist’s point across. Cartoons such as Franklin’s “Join, or Die” provided an influential avenue of expression for all citizens, well-educated or not, who held grievances against the government.

“Cartoons spoke to the masses in a way that nothing else could,” says Thomas Bivins, a professor at the University of Oregon and the John L. Hulteng Chair for Media Ethics. “Someone was far less likely to try to slog through 500 words of eloquently written satire than stop for 30 seconds to look at an editorial cartoon. They crossed boundaries.”

A tool commonly used to cross those boundaries is the stereotype.

“Stereotypes provide a framework for cartoonists to convey a complex idea without any words at all,” Bivins says. “It’s a quick message that has to be digested in a hurry. They’re shorthand for all the cultural connotations that accompany that particular concept.”

Elephants equal Republican and donkeys mean Democrat. Crosses connotate Christianity and peace signs imply hippie. And in recent years, turbans have come to signify the Middle East.

“For my class on persuasion and ethics, I show students four different cartoons by four different artists that represent Saudi Arabia,” Bivins says. “They’re all the exact same character—a big, fat Arab guy with sunglasses on.”

The fictional character Uncle Sam was originally used to portray the well being of the United States in political cartoons, but in current society many people watch satirical television programs to learn about presidential scandals.

The most famous character representing US culture, Uncle Sam, often appears in media as an expression of current American politics. According to Bivins, who wrote his first published academic paper on the varying body shapes of Uncle Sam, “In times of strife, he’s thin and emaciated. Sometimes, he’s bumbling and chubby, which signifies that America is inept.” Whatever his size, Uncle Sam “remains an important symbol” say Stephen Hess and Sandy Northrop, authors of Drawn and Quartered: The History of American Political Cartoons. But, they add, “he is rarely given the reverence he once received.”

According to Jasheway-Bryant, the beauty of American politics is that politicians often don’t require the assistance of a cartoonist to paint a picture of ineptitude.

In a 2008 televised interview with Sarah Palin, journalist Katie Couric asked the Republican vice presidential candidate which newspapers and magazines she read to stay informed. “I read most of them,” Palin responded. Even when Couric rephrased the question, Palin said that she read “all of them and any of them” but could not provide the names of any specific publications.

“She created her own stereotype and brought it on herself by doing stuff like that,” says Jasheway-Bryant of Palin’s vague response to Couric’s question. “That kind of intellectual error and human frailty openly invites satire and creates an environment during election season that is so ripe and juicy for comedy.”

Later that year, the comedy television show Saturday Night Live (SNL) ran a spoof interview in which Sarah Palin, portrayed by comedian Tina Fey, asked to “use a lifeline” and “phone a friend.” Both were nods to another pop culture mainstay, the television show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. 

Four years later, the race is on again with new faces appearing on SNL. In an April 30, 2012, interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, actors Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen of SNL—who play Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, respectively—discussed the impact of political satire on viewers.

“We’re only a reflection of what’s already being done out there,” said Sudeikis, referring to the statements and actions of politicians on the presidential campaign trail. “It helps get everyone on the same page.” Concerning his role as Romney, Sudeikis said he wishes the politician had a wilder campaign record. “Playing Romney is boring,” he added. “He’s like a butter sandwich, made with unsalted butter, with the crusts cut off.”

Realizing the impact of late night comedy shows on voters, politicians have even begun playing the fool in an effort to reclaim the upper hand.

Last year, the real Romney appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman in a segment titled “The Top Ten Things Mitt Romney Would Like to Say to the American Public.” In a clear effort to appeal to young voters, Romney referred to himself as “M-I-double tizzle,” a parody of slang-slinging rap icons like Snoop Dogg.

This April, Obama followed suit by “slow jamming the news” on Jimmy Fallon’s late night comedy talk show. The two sang about recently passed education legislation.

“If there are more people talking about the skits concerning your actions and policies than your actual actions and policies, a smart politician would take that as an opportunity to regain their attention through those skits,” Jasheway-Bryant says. “Sometimes satire becomes the news itself.”

Television shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show have taken this idea literally, creating entertainment that imitates and satirizes mainstream news outlets. Using the events of the day to fuel their comedy, Colbert and Stewart poke fun at specific elements of current events.

An April 2011 episode of The Colbert Report focused on Senator Jon Kyl’s address to Congress in which he erroneously stated that abortions make up 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does. Public relations representatives for Kyl later said it “was not intended to be a factual statement.” Colbert responded by tweeting “facts” about Kyl—he has a tail, he has had numerous affairs, he kills puppies by throwing them off bridges—and ending each post with “#NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement.” The public’s response was staggering, with thousands of viewers sending subsequent tweets following the same format. Colbert continued the conversation about Senator Kyl and Planned Parenthood by reading his favorite viewer tweets on air.

In Ethos’ own visual satire, a group plays the strategic board game Risk, mirroring the games of chance orchestrated by world leaders.

While Colbert’s tactic may seem extreme or even malicious, Bivins says that over-exaggeration is the purpose of political satire.

“Satirists use people to point out a problem and put pressure on politicians to clean up their act,” he says. “They show politicians that their constituents really are paying attention and they notice those slip-ups, whether big or small.”

College students especially take notice and often rely on comedic shows as their primary news sources. In a 2008 SNL skit, Sarah Palin look-alike Tina Fey said, “I can see Russia from my house.” As the campaign continued, this famous quote was often incorrectly attributed to Palin herself. Barbara Walters addressed the issue in a September 2008 interview, in which Palin simply referred to Russia as “neighbors” to Alaska. But the blurring of comedy and news goes beyond a single incident. In 2009, the Pew Research Center reported that 21 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 cited The Daily Show and SNL as their main resources for presidential news. That’s double the figure from 2000.

“I’m not worried,” Jasheway-Bryant says of the statistics. “People are smart consumers and responsible voters. They know that anyone, anywhere, at any point in your life could be bending the truth for the sake of humor, or even flat out lying to you. They’re smart enough to know when something is fact and when something is funny.”

But if this growing trend is any indication, the distinction between news and comedy may soon disappear, resulting in a culture in which journalism plays second fiddle to satire. Men and women might sip their morning coffee with an issue of MAD instead of The New York Times. Readers could search for facts among the funnies instead of the front page. Americans may forego the evening news in favor of a late night comedic alternative.

Could the ideal of journalism as discussed in Bowden’s Atlantic article exist in this entertainment-driven environment? Would jokes supersede all “straight stories,” effectively eliminating the “mission and promise of journalism?” Or would this simply be another form of journalism, as effective and informative as the styles that have preceded it?

Turn on the TV. It’s six o’clock—do you know where your news is?

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