When Professor Dirk Brockmann first came to Northwestern University from Germany four years ago, one of the first things he did was scour American television in search of a news channel. Between cable and the networks, American TV abounds with various sources of news, but Brockmann was not satisfied. He was looking for something simultaneously informational and compelling, the broadcast equivalent of the New York Times. The closest he got was a pair of shows designed to mock real news shows.
“When you come from Germany, the biggest difference in television is I think news,” Brockmann said. “Generally, the typical news that you watch at like 8 p.m. It seemed to me always focusing on wrong stories or it’s not political, it’s a lot of colors and noise and et cetera. And while I was going through all the channels, I just really by coincidence found this Stewart show, and it was just hilarious.”
Brockmann went on to make The Daily Show and The Colbert Report part of his calculus class. He divided the students into groups based on whether they preferred Colbert or Stewart, and then compared the test scores of the two groups.
Brockmann was able to do this because most of the students in his Math 234 class watched those Comedy Central shows regularly. They’re not the only ones. A 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that Jon Stewart tied with Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper as the fourth most admired journalist among Americans.
That finding might seem strange since Stewart’s show is meant as satire rather than a real news show. But Northwestern’s Professor Lawrence Stuelpnagel, a distinguished senior lecturer in the WCAS political science department and an assistant professor in Medill, said that these shows, particularly their recent work on Super PACs when Colbert mounted his fake run for the Presidency of South Carolina, have surpassed similar coverage by “mainstream” news sources.
“Sometimes, they do a better job with journalism than the journalists do, ironically,” Stuelpnagel said. “The whole thing that Colbert started and Stewart picked up on is just putting up a mirror to the rest of society, saying, ‘How crazy can it get?’ And everything they’re saying there about what you can do and get away with if you have a Super PAC is right on the money.”
Super PACs, or Political Action Committees, arose after the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that political campaign donations from corporations and unions counted as free speech and could not be prohibited or regulated. Basically, they are committees organized for political candidates that can accept almost an unlimited number of donations. Legally, they are not allowed to contact the campaigns they support, but there is not any kind of mechanism for checking up on that. Stuelpnagel said Colbert, who created a Super PAC for his mock presidential campaign in South Carolina, and Stewart have covered these legally gray aspects of Super PACs better than anyone else.
“Everything they’re saying there about what you can do and get away with if you have a Super PAC is right on the money,” Stuelpnagel said. “Everything they’re doing is legal. They’re being watchdogs. They’re howling at the situation.”
Fake or not, Colbert’s presidential run garnered significant media attention, including a TV ad financed by his Super PAC.
Medill freshman Stephen Autar said that Colbert’s comedy works well right now because of the absurd nature of the various Republican presidential campaigns and that Colbert’s fake campaign wasn’t any more ridiculous than those of Rick Santorum or Herman Cain.
“I feel that his credibility is the same as basically any other Republican candidate,” Autar said. “I don’t know, it seems like Colbert might have a better grasp on the country’s situation than the actual Republicans.”
Weinberg freshman Greg Mroz disagreed. Mroz worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign in Marin County, CA and said that as a media figure Colbert should stay out of politics.
“I think there needs to be satire in politics,” Mroz said. “But Colbert is the kind of guy who can’t identify with either party. Stay out of the political arena. We want to focus on the candidates who are actually going to get the nominations.”
Love him or hate him, Colbert certainly doesn’t leave a lot of room for ambivalence. Neither do many satirists from history. Northwestern political science Professor Lars Tønder is teaching a freshman seminar in Spring Quarter called “The Politics of Comedy.” He said these satirical shows, particularly The Colbert Report, are successors in a tradition of satirists going all the way back to ancient Greek playwrights.
“In old Greece, you had comedians like Aristophanes who would create these comedies and explicitly call out the deficiencies of Greek democracy,” Tønder said. “Colbert is probably the closest we get to a contemporary Aristophanes. He is very good at calling out not just the persons but the system.”
Tønder cited not only Colbert’s coverage of Super PACs but also his testimony to Congress about immigration last year, as examples of a “very active engagement with society.”
As powerful as they’re becoming in the political discourse, Colbert and Stewart aren’t the only purveyors of comedy and satire in the modern media landscape. The Onion has long been a popular purveyor of print satire, mocking newspapers the way Colbert and Stewart make fun of mainstream news anchors.
Northwestern has its own version of The Onion, The Flipside, founded by Weinberg senior Nick Zessis as a continuation of a similar publication Zessis had done with friends at his high school in Deerfield, Ill.
No matter what medium it uses, Zessis said that satire often has a point to get across and a unique way to make that point.
“A lot of what we do, it’s random pieces sometimes, but the witty comments we make are targeted towards making a point, whether that’s political or about the stupid construction on campus,” Zessis said. “It’s a way to put your opinion out there and also have fun, not take yourself so seriously sometimes.”