You can tell that I haven’t posted anything to the site in over six weeks by way of the truly unimaginative title of this post. With that behind me, I can turn to more interesting issues and topics. Of late, I’ve been focusing most of my attention on a paper I’m writing with Megan Boler (UoT) on the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. We attended the rally back in October and interviewed over thirty participants. We’re in the final stages of writing this article, so it seems likely that some version of the paper will appear in the not-so-distant future. The working title is “Satire and Social Change: The Rally To Restore Sanity and the Future of Politics.” If you’re curious to learn more about our work, Dr. Boler provided a really great encapsulation of the rally’s significance in this interview with the CBC’s Mark Kelley. If you’d rather keep things light and fluffy, I suggest at the very least you visit HuffPo’s homage to the best/funniest signs from the rally.
I’m also in the process of writing a book chapter on fake news/informed comedy for the 2nd edition of Communication in Question: Competing Perspectives on Controversial Issues in Communication Studies. The book itself is a great introductory text, largely comprised of competing arguments from leading Canadian scholars on issues of relevance to communication/media studies. The general idea is to demonstrate to students that there are at least two approaches to any given topic or debate, and to encourage them to develop their own perspective(s). In class, I always seem to mention that if students should ever encounter someone that argues that the world is made up of “two kinds of people,” they should drop everything and run full-stop in the other direction. “And run as fast as you can…” In retrospect, perhaps the best advice I could give is for them to wait for the person to explain themselves, absorb their (binary) worldview, and offer an alternative perspective. Admittedly, this would require a lot of patience and a great deal of restraint, so this may not always be the most feasible course of action.
All digressions aside, the fake news chapter will argue for a more inclusive view that gives comedians and satirists a degree of merit, credibility, and legitimacy for the work that they do. Having studied this phenomenon for over five years, I’ve witnessed an interesting progression in the ways in which fake news operates — from independent/DIY undertaking to corporately-controlled media branding exercise to politically progressive activist work — making it a fascinating point of departure for thinking about contemporary journalism. One aspect of fake news that continues to inspire me is the notion that readers of news parody/satire have to have a baseline of information and cultural capital to be in on the joke. Without that information, readers are essentially left on the sidelines without any promise of re-entering the frame. A good analogy here is the notion of being coerced by the laugh track in today’s sitcom — and mindlessly laughing without understanding why one is laughing (Chuck Klosterman deconstructs this practice here). This kind of laughter is superficial and hollow, and doesn’t necessarily encourage one to continue watching or reading. Moving beyond this kind of hollow laughter into the realm of informed or knowing laughter is what makes the experience of reading/watching news satire so engaging.
One my hunches is that The Onion incites its readers to consume news from a whole range of sources. This relationship was crystallized for me through a number of informal interviews I’ve conducted over the years, but it truly materialized as a powerful idea through Pippa Norris’ excellent book, The Virtuous Circle (2000). A discussion of her work merits multiple blog posts, so in the interests of brevity, I’ll say that one of the most illuminating findings from her research is that consumers of news will seek out other news sources, creating a robust and engaged newsreader. If this is true of readers of traditional news, it follows that the same can be said of readers of (news) satire.
To make the relationship between traditional and satirical news more explicit, The Onion website even started running the day’s headlines from Slate, The Washington Post, and others. Of course, news organizations and media companies have long relied on advertising dollars for the bulk of their operational costs — and The Onion‘s integration of advertising content from so-called legitimate news organizations might be seen, at first glance, to amount to little more than business as usual. But the section’s unassuming title – From our Partners – is suggestive in two striking ways: first, satirical news (however ironically) situates itself as part of a larger continuum of traditional news; and second, the site offers a clearly defined jumping off point for readers to investigate other news sites. What we learn is that the boundaries between real and fake, serious and sarcastic, stern and playful — not to mention, political and entertaining — are becoming increasingly fluid. As far as The Onion is concerned, these distinctions matter little. Its YouTube channel conveys this quite nicely, making two other channel recommendations for The New York Times and Funny or Die.
The next step, of course, is to discuss the currency of both traditional and satirical forms of journalism, highlighting the strengths of each. It’s my contention that fake news is instrumental in serving as a critical check not only on power (governments, corporations, shoddy figures in the public eye), but on the news media that is meant to be serving the public interest. In a future post, I’ll unpack this a little further, as it seems I’m already drafting the beginnings of this essay.
More to come.
[In a completely unrelated note, if you haven't seen this Beirut concert footage already, you probably should. Beirut plays the Phoenix tonight.]