25th February 2016
By Stefanie Chernow

Poking Fun and Story-telling: How Satire Holds Media and Politicians to Account

Tom Law

One challenging feature of media coverage of this year’s United States presidential race has been how journalists cope with the increasingly bellicose rhetoric and draconian policies proposed by many of the Republican candidates on immigration issues.

The dominant narrative on migration in the US has historically been in relation to “economic migrants” from Mexico but the ongoing Syrian civil war has seen politicians and media struggle to adjust to how to talk about the relative small number of Syrian refugees who have been granted asylum in the US.

In a segment of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee broadcast this week and published on her youtube channel the satirist turns her ire on the myths peddled by some media and politicians surrounding the refugee resettlement programme.

Bee contrasts the anti-refugee and often dehumanising rhetoric on Fox News and other outlets by speaking to refugees in camps in Jordan as well as meeting successful Syrian asylum seekers who are undergoing integration classes.

The sketches highlight the continuing lack of refugee voices in media, which was one of the many findings of the EJN’s recent Moving Stories report on media coverage of migration in the US and 13 other countries.

The absence of refugee voices has been confirmed by a recent study of UK media by the Migrant Rights Network which found that 85% of coverage did not include a migrant voice or perspective and most stories on migration ‘framed migrants as either a threat (46%) or as victims in need of support (38%)’.

In the US, Bee is one of a number of satirists who is questioning the way media and many politicians talk about refugees and immigration.

Is John Oliver a journalist?

Most prominent is British comedian John Oliver, another Daily Show alumni, whose HBO show Last Week Tonight has consistently shone a light on many issues that populist politicians and broadcast media either fail to cover or do so in a highly partisan and biased way.

In between his jokes at expense of the worst offenders, Oliver consistently tackles difficult topics like immigration in long 10 to 20 minute segments, often with a degree of accuracy and humanity that many journalists might follow.

Oliver was caustic in his criticism of UK Prime Minister David Cameron over coverage of his use of loose language when describing the millions of migrants seeking asylum in Europe in September last year.

“When you are dealing with a mass of people that large you really want to be a little careful with how you describe them. Unfortunately David Cameron […] recently referred to “a swarm of people coming crossing the Mediterranean” and that language matters because a swarm of anything sounds terrifying no matter what it is.”

Oliver goes on to point out that “in the US some in the media have chosen to reduce the migrant population to one simple stereotype” before playing one of the most extreme examples from Fox News which links Muslim refugees on a train chanting, “God is great”, to Islamist terrorist groups.

The US chapter of the Ethical Journalism Network’s Moving Stories report focuses on how news media have dealt with the migrant hate manifesto pursued by politicians like Republican candidate Donald Trump.

It is in this context that US satirists like Bee and Oliver play a valuable role in holding the US media as well as politicians to account. But can we describe Oliver’s work as journalism?

In an interview last year with Jorge Ramos, Oliver denied this saying, “I’m doing the job of a comedian […] I make jokes about the news.”

However, in Ramos’ opinion Oliver, who has won a Peabody Award for public service journalism for his show Last Week Tonight, has “more credibility than most journalists here in the United States and, I would say, in many other countries.”

Oliver’s show is frequently praised for its journalistic quality, investigative nature and accuracy but he insists that such claims are “more an insult to the current state of journalism than it is a compliment for the state of comedy.”

An Englishman in New York, Oliver is self-deprecating to a fault, but many journalists hold his work in high regard and his show often influences the news agenda. According to Bloomberg Politics, and many others, Oliver has “transformed the net neutrality debate once and for all” with his coverage of an issue so boring, as the description of the video on his youtube channel admits, “most news outlets aren’t covering it.”

It is impossible to satirise something that an audience is not informed about so, Oliver argues, he has to first to provide factual context on the issues he covers in order to set up his punchlines.

Terry Gross, the presenter of Fresh Air on US National Public Radio, says that Last Week Tonight is able to “take complicated issues and issues that aren’t already on everybody’s radar, even issues you may thought were boring, and then create satire that is informative as well as laugh out loud funny.”

In an “embarrassing” admission Gross, an experienced journalist, says in an interview with Oliver that she had not even been following the 2014 Indian election before watching the show. The show is not just informing the public but also media leaders.

Oliver’s show has some clear advantages compared with other satirical programmes and indeed many news channels. His show broadcasts just once a week allowing his team of writers and fact-checkers to spend extensive time on a story. In a 24-hour news environment where the rush to publish is so great, few reporters and journalists have such a luxury.

The other advantage Oliver has is that his show is on HBO, whose subscriber model means that it does not rely on advertising, giving Oliver a “confusing amount of freedom”.

Talking about the difference between HBO and his previous employer The Daily Show, which is broadcast on Comedy Central, Oliver says that on HBO “you can do 12 minutes on General Motors’ corporate malfeasance, which can be a problem on network television.” When you work for a network reliant on advertising, Oliver says, “there are going to be consequences” if you are critical of the channel’s big corporate sponsors.

Pressure from advertisers is not only a threat to the freedom of expression of satirists but has long been the cause of stories not being told by journalists and media more widely.

Untold Stories

Our 2015 report, Untold Stories, found that ‘dark arts’ are at work everywhere in journalism with “people doing deals with advertisers to carry paid-for material disguised as honest news; reporters accepting bribes; or any kind of multitude of dodgy practices, which are kept hidden from the audience.”

But it’s not always good news for those who poke fun at people in power. Satirists, like independent journalists, can often find themselves under threat for holding governments and the powerful to account. In Egypt, one of the countries featured in the Untold Stories report, political satirist Bassem Youssef, had to end his popular show in 2014 after threats to his family and staff.

And earlier this month two puppeteers were arrested in Madrid under “glorification of terrorism” legislation.

Praising terrorism has been a crime in Spain since 1995 but the arrest of the puppeteers, who were released after five days, triggered a heated debate with supporters of the puppeteers’ adopting the slogan Je suis titiritero (I am the puppeteer) in reference to Je suis Charlie, the slogan of the protests following last year’s terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in which 12 people died, most of them journalists.

These cases show that journalism has many voices, some of them not immediately recognisable, and satire is one of the most important. While playing it straight is sometimes enough to attract and hold the attention of the audience, often the most important news can be equally delivered with quick-wit and a sharp tongue that not only informs the public, but also takes the pompous out of politics.

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Read the US Chapter of the Moving Stories report here.