The Hoya recognizes Prof Adam Lifshey's Research Contributions at the MLA
It's Funny Because It's True: Professor Examines Role of Satirical Media
Lifshey Presents Studies at MLA Convention
Adam Lifshey, an assistant professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, presented two wildly different topics at the Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco last month. After presenting a paper on Philippine literature to a panel, he decided to make his second contribution to the conference a laughing matter — literally. A devotee of both “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and The Onion, Lifshey decided to give a presentation on contemporary satirical media. He sat down with The Hoya to talk about his analysis of comedic journalism.
What inspired you to study satirical media?
The MLA is the biggest conference for literature professors, and every year they have around 800 panels. Some of these panels are sponsored by organizations. I was reading the call for papers, and I saw that the American Humor Studies Association was sponsoring a panel on 21st-century humor. I thought it would be great to write something on “The Daily Show” and The Onion.
You wrote a paper entitled “America (The Conference Paper): The Onion Unpeeled, ‘The Daily Show’ Untimed”. What was your basic argument?
The basic argument is that satirical media uses fake news stories in a way that is actually more accurate than the mainstream media that claims truth, so that there is a kind of paradox. I argue, for example, that The Onion’s coverage of Pearl Harbor, although it’s entirely fabricated, is actually far more accurate historically than most popular coverage of Pearl Harbor.
Would you say that this accuracy is intentional, or is it something that satirical media accidentally stumblesupon?
I’ll give you the Pearl Harbor example. The headline in The Onion is ‘Dastardly Japs Attack Colonially Occupied U.S. Non-state.’ Now, Pearl Harbor is normally represented as a moment when an innocent United States was unexpectedly attacked by an unethical, foreign empire. This headline points out a couple things. First, that Hawaii was not a state. Hawaii was actually a kingdom that had been recognized by the United States and then had been toppled by the United States. It was a colony of the United States at the time of Pearl Harbor. This headline shows that Pearl Harbor is actually a battle between two colonial powers, not a battle of one colonial power viciously attacking another [power]. Taken from another angle, the tone of wounded surprise of “Dastardly Japs” suggests that an innocent nation was taken advantage of, but of course the racist content of the phrase shows that the nation is anything but innocent. The headline thus also shows the blindness of the U.S. about itself.
Do you think college students in particular see greater accuracy in comedic journalism, rather than mainstream journalism?
Comedic journalism has a pretty clear demographic: younger, more liberal, etc. But I would say that truth is not determined by the narrowness or broadness of an audience. … What The Onion and “The Daily Show” do is break down the inherent weakness of dominant news rhetoric and offer a different rhetoric that allows other observations to be made. If a commentator on TV echoes the president, saying that this is the greatest nation on earth, it is incumbent for “The Daily Show” and The Onion to point out realities like slavery that have happened here. That’s a very simple observation, and that observation may, perhaps, only curry favor with a very narrow demographic. But its truthfulness, or its accuracy, does not depend on the audience; it depends on the observation itself.
Do you think that the growth in popularity of “The Daily Show” and other satirical media is due to an increase in accuracy of those media, or to a growing frustration with the mainstream media?
I think it’s a combination of things. “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have really flourished in opposition over the past eight years. … I would also say that “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have been grudgingly recognized by the mainstream media as contributing to the national debates. When Colbert gave his speech at the Press Correspondents’ Dinner, for example, Colbert’s narrative was comedic and accurate, and so divergent from the rhetoric put forth by its target — who was sitting in the audience — that it gave Colbert a certain gravitas.
How large a part do you believe humor plays in the appeal of satirical media?
The humor is very important in drawing people in. It sort of coats the iron fist of the rhetoric. In the example I gave about Pearl Harbor, people start laughing, and the moment that they catch themselves and realize why they’re laughing is the moment that prompts introspection as to the nature of the commentary. Conversely, let’s say that there was reporting done in the tone of a documentary which wasn’t trying to be funny at all, but which was trying to pull on emotional heartstrings or intellect. That rhetoric fits much more neatly into our expectations, so it’s less likely to cause us to reevaluate our expectations. There’s a distinction between the hilarity of the satirical media and the tragedy of much of what they’re reporting, which is why their commentary is so acute and so effective.
In a New York Times story on Jon Stewart, it cited polls that have shown that he is now one of the most trusted newsmen in American media. What is your take on that and Jon Stewart’s related assertion that he doesn’t want to be seen as a serious newscaster?
I certainly trust him more than any other news anchor. I think that’s legitimate when all the mainstream news went along with the Bush administration’s portrayal of the Iraq war. For years, it was only people like Jon Stewart who were pointing out that missions were not accomplished. I don’t see much reason to trust news organizations that think that news consists of repeating the rhetoric coming out of the Oval Office. Stewart is one of the few people that think that news is about breaking down that rhetoric and examining it, rather than parroting it.
As far as what he says about himself, it is far more important what he does than what he says. Like everything else on “The Daily Show” and in The Onion, irony is a very important way of behaving. Irony, at a basic level, is saying one thing and meaning another. At the end of the day, it is irrelevant what he sees as his function because his function is what the rest of us perceive it to be. Also it fits in very well with the whole premise of a news operation that frequently says one thing in order to mean the other thing.
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