When Comedians Do What the Media Can’t

A lot of smart people are offering their thoughts on why the media is having such a hard time covering the Trump campaign.

Brian Beutler

The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade. By and large, it doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms and liberal institutions—except when press freedoms and access itself are at stake. Much like an advocacy group or lobbying firm will reserve value judgments for issues that directly touch upon the things they’re invested in, reporters and media organizations are far more concerned with things like transparency, the treatment of reporters, and first-in-line access to information of public interest, than they are with other forms of democratic accountability.

That’s not a value set that’s well calibrated to gauging Trump’s unmatched, omnidirectional assault on our civil life. Trump can do and say outrageous things all the time, and those things get covered in a familiar “did he really say that?” fashion, but his individual controversies don’t usually get sustained negative coverage unless he is specifically undermining press freedom in some clear and simple way.

Jonathan Chait:

The most important substantive problem facing political journalists of this era is asymmetrical polarization. Political journalism evolved during an era of loose parties, both of which hugged the center, and now faces an era in which one of those parties has veered sharply away from the center. Today’s Republican Party now resides within its own empirical alternative universe, almost entirely sealed off from any source of data, expertise, or information that might throw its ideological prior values into question. Donald Trump’s candidacy is the ne plus ultra of this trend, an outlier horrifying even to a great many conservatives who have been largely comfortable with their party’s direction until now. How can the news media appropriately cover Trump and his clearly flawed opponent without creating an indecipherable din of equivalent-sounding criticism, where one candidate’s evasive use of a private email server looms larger than the other’s promise to commit war crimes?

Josh Marshall:

What this debate all comes down to is that the imperative for balance and the imperative for accuracy and completeness, clarifying and explaining what’s true and what’s not are inevitably in tension. Precisely how it’s solved or how that tension is dealt with is a very good debate to be having. (I would suggest the goal is not balance but fairness, fundamental honesty with readers and a constant effort to interrogate one’s own biases.) But not to recognize the tension and not to see how some candidates push that tension to the point of crisis simply shows you’re in denial or have a monumental lack of self-awareness about the journalistic craft.

If you are interested in understanding what is going on with the media in this election, all of those are worth a thorough reading.

But ever since Stephen Colbert showed the White House Press Corp how it’s done at their annual dinner in 2006, we’ve been seeing that good comedians have a way of breaking things like this down in a way that powerfully resonates. That is exactly what Samantha Bee did with this topic. You can enjoy yourself while you watch this one. But you’ll also get a really well-done summary of what is going wrong with media coverage during this election. Nobody has done it better.

This is why I have often said that comedians can be prophets (and I don’t mean that in a religious sense). Here’s a good summary of how that works from Douglas Hagler:

Our society has prophets, but they look a bit different from Isaiah or Amos. They are comedians. I say this because in order to be a great comedian, you have to see yourself and the world around you clearly, as it is, and also experience the pain of the world not being what it should be. Then, you articulate that pain in such a way that it can be heard. Humor gets past defenses, and allows someone to say things that they could never say in another context.

We might have a media that is struggling to tell us the truth. But as long as we have comedians like Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, we can be sure that someone is going to give it to us straight.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.