Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Colbert and the Dangers of Satire

While skimming the latest issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (transparency alert -- I'm on the editorial board), I noticed the final article on the effects of Colbert's program on American youth. Everyone knows Colbert's shtick, playing a far right, self-obsessed TV commentator. He makes fun of political conservatives by playing one. Damn funny.

But do people get it? Especially young viewers?

I thought so, but a study by Jody C. Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris suggest otherwise. Using a controlled experiment, the viewers of the Colbert Report were found to NOT be more critical of the far right and instead there was an increased affinity for President George W. Bush, Congressional Republicans, and policies favored by the GOP.

What the hell?

Even more interesting, the authors argue this is opposite the effect found for viewers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who plays a faux news commentator, but without posing as a conservative.

These "unintended consequences" are fascinating. Do some young people not get satire? Are some of them politically unsophisticated, enough so that they actually move in the direction of the political position being mocked? I suspect so. This reminds me of the response to All in the Family and the infamous main character,
Archie Bunker. Remember him? He played a bigoted, narrow-minded guy who, every episode, turned out to be wrong. Except -- and this is important -- for many who shared his views, they actually thought him right, winning the debate, and there was some suggestion that he moved viewers to the right, not left.

Coincidently, Leonard Pitts has an interesting column today that mentions Bunker and he discusses showing the program to his students, and how they were apalled by the humor. Also discussing the new film Gran Torino, he asks are we at the point now of political correctness that satire won't work if it touches on race. Are we awash in sensitivity?

I think some of this is related, but I'm going to have to think through exactly how, and what it all means. Basically I suspect some people just don't get satire and, today, we're often afraid of anything that comes close to negativity toward any racial, ethnic, religious, or other kind of group. That's good, but there are side effects.

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