I was recently watching WTF 101, which is CollegeHumor’s parody of The Magic School Bus. Every episode, Professor Foxtrot takes her students through space and time to see the horrors of history and the natural world. This episode was about torture, and in one scene, the professor was describing a peculiar torture method used by the Persians called Scaphism or “the boats.” This method involves tying a person in between two boats and covering them in milk and honey (hell yes). The victim is then left out in the open until vermin eats them alive (hell no).
The problem with this alleged torture method is that it’s wildly impractical. A person is far more likely to die first of dehydration than to be eaten by flies. It almost sounds like someone just made it up, which makes sense once you consider that the primary historical account we have for Scaphism comes from the Greek writer Plutarch, who was no friend of the Persians. It would be like reading Into to Mexican history as written by Donald Trump. Scaphism probably came from Plutarch’s xenophobic imagination, but the WTF 101 writer’s desire for novelty trumped fact-checking something that was easily Googleable.
I am a comedian (at least, according to my husband).
I also love Infotainment, otherwise known as the practice of breaking down academic subject matter in a funny way. I will be the first to tell you, however, that you shouldn’t be using comedians as your primary source of news.
Infotainment is increasingly common in this new era of television. From Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act, to John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, to Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, there are a lot of comedians whose entire career involves breaking down information to the American public. Infotainment’s focus on novelty, however, means that most comedians prioritize scandalous bits of information with widespread appeal, regardless of whether or not that information is important, or even true.
A good example is the TruTv show Adam Ruins Everything, which is a show where the host Adam Conover “ruins” popular subject matters by revealing the existential horrors of existing power structures (sort of like Tumblr). In the episode Adam Ruins Animals, the host, Adam, tackles trophy hunting, the practice of rich people going to developing countries to kill exotic animals. In the episode, Adam uses a seemingly novel argument that the fees rich people pay to hunt exotic animals go directly to support conservations.
The only problem is that this popular narrative is questionable at best (so definitely like Tumblr, then).
While select conservations do strictly regulate how much game can be killed, that doesn’t always happen in some of the kleptocracies that dot the African continent. Corrupt governments aren’t always willing to divert their bribery money to help cuddly animals. Mostly, the total amount hunters contribute to conservations is smaller than the total needed to maintain the preservations they hunt in, making trophy hunting a contentious issue that lacks a clear right or wrong. As biologist Craig Packer told National Geographic a year later:
“[If hunters were shooting lions] for a million dollars and returning a million per lion directly into management, they would be on solid ground. But lions are shot for tens of thousands of dollars, and very little of that money goes back to conservation.”
The preservation of charismatic megafauna like lions is more complicated than the “not what you expected” twist that the Adam Ruins Everything TV show was trying to tell its audience. Sometimes there isn’t an easily packageable “gotcha” that can be sold to consumers, but the desire for such a punchline can lead to very correctable mistakes like the one above.
Adam Conover would be the first to admit that his show is fallible. Comedians classically have very low self-esteem. The series even did an episode debunking itself called Emily Ruins Adam. A lot of “truth-telling” comedians are very forthcoming about their flaws and will readily concede that they are not journalists. When asked in February of 2016 about whether Last Week Tonight classified as investigative journalism, comedian John Oliver told NPR:
“No. There’s a pretty simple answer to that. No, it is not. No, we are a comedy show so everything we do is in pursuit of comedy.”
Yet, just because comedians don’t perceive themselves as news sources doesn’t mean they aren’t ones. The Internet has all but collapsed the distinction between opinion-havers with a platform and journalists working for an actual news organization, which is why journalists are getting fired and my ad revenue is going up, up, baybeeee. People now use comedians such as John Oliver and Adam Conover as their go-to news sources, a fact that would be inconsequential if so many people didn’t use them as primary sources.
Americans are getting more of their news exclusively from funny people with a platform. According to Pew Research, when the Colbert Report was in its heyday in 2014, a startling 10% of online adults used it as a primary news source. The number of Americans that get their political news from comedians has only increased as social media has eclipsed traditional print platforms in news dissemination. In the words of Philip Stamato at Vulture:
“Late night comedy now has a much larger impact on audiences than it had just over a decade ago, thanks in large part to The Daily Show and all that it has spawned. It has gradually become a more substantial source for insight about what’s happening in our world; it’s become an outlet for news and valuable information.”
Like it or not, comedians are part of the news ecosystem, even though we do not subscribe to the same fact-checking standards as journalists. We may spend a lot of our time writing and researching about contemporary events and issues, but by and large, our efforts are not journalistic.
Comedians are freeloaders: we get our information almost exclusively from reading and watching “real news”. We skim the headlines for scandalous events, and then break up the tension for our sets by inserting one or two dick jokes. Rarely, do we collect our own sources and do our own research. We might do an interview every once in a while, but we aren’t submitting FOIA requests, combing through old articles and blogs, and establishing relationships with sources. Almost all of it comes from the diligent, and often thankless efforts of journalists. As John Oliver referenced in his Journalism episode:
“Stupid shows like ours lean heavily on local papers. In fact, whenever this show is mistakenly called journalism it is a slap in the face to the actual journalists whose work we rely on.”
My fellow infotaining comedians are essentially funny commentators. We are the vomiting birds of news, and you are our chicklings. We take information other people have crafted and package it into an easily-digestible format. While shows like Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal have rigorous fact-checkers, they still are not doing the work of investigative journalism; when they get something wrong in their reporting, they do not issue public retractions.
When was the last time you saw a comedian apologize for inaccurate facts in their set?
It does happen occasionally, but retractions are not a reality woven into the fabric of most comedy shows (You can click here to find a video of John Oliver parodying this fact when he gives a series of fake retractions during a 2018 hiatus).
We also are rarely focused on local issues. Again, when was the last time you saw John Oliver comb through the infrastructure plan of Portland, Maine, or saw Samantha Bee cover the Black Lives Matter movements in Tuscon, Arizona? The only time these issues get put on their radar is when they make national headlines, and become the perfect reference point for a joke, preferably one with dicks in it. This neglect of local news makes it problematic to rely on comedians as your primary news source because we will rarely connect you to the issues affecting your local community. Jokes on local issues don’t scale enough to get those HBO, Comedy Central, or TBS dollars.
Basically, what’s funny isn’t always what’s best for you to learn. If you have an exclusively joke-ridden media diet, then I’m going to guess that you have a lot of strongly-held opinions on national issues, but know jack about the policies affecting your local community: what are the names of your local leaders? Where do they meet? What’s the last thing they voted on?
Feeling called out? Good.
As we can see when comedians throw up the “I don’t do news!” excuse, they have a tendency to hide behind their profession. They will use comedy as a shield against criticism. This tendency to avoid criticism via humor sounds very similar to when conservatives deflect responsibility for their positions by claiming they were jokes. We are comedians, after all, you aren’t supposed to take our political opinions seriously — except, of course, for when you watch our shows, read our articles, buy our books and give us your attention.
Do that stuff. Just don’t give us shit for it when we mess up.
Comedy is in a weird place right now because comedians want all the credit for being activists that speak “truth-to-power” with little of the responsibility. We somehow exist at an intersection that allows us to be socially active and not at the same time (so again, exactly like Tumblr). We are credited for bringing to light social issues that hundreds, if not thousands of more informed people have already discussed, but aren’t pushed to talk about these issues in greater depth. All we have to do is make people laugh. The facts are just the setup to a joke.
When you decide to use us as your primary source of information, you’re going to run into some major problems. We will not be right all the time, and we won’t correct our mistakes. We will focus on sexy topics we can milk for laughs instead of issues that directly impact you — issues which will often be local, and that won’t benefit our bottom line.
You shouldn’t be coming to people like me for your primary sources of information. I don’t think what I am providing is worthless (I wouldn’t be writing if I did), but nothing I write should be your first pass at understanding the world.
You need to develop a healthy news diet, and stop binging on the empty calories of commentary alone, mmkay?
There’s nothing funny about complacency.
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