Satirizing the news a challenge in the age of Trump
Absurdity and exaggeration, the two key ingredients of political satire, are no longer as effective in the age of Donald Trump and ‘fake news’ — something that is forcing comedians and talk show hosts to adapt their craft to get a laugh.
News parody outlets such as The Onion, The Flipside, The Borowitz Report and a whole slew of others have all made a name for themselves by twisting the news to give it a humorous edge, openly mocking reality.
The formula worked as a counterpoint to real news, but with the advent of Trump’s Twitter account and the explosion of fake news sites, the lines have become blurred.
“The absurdity of our reality has completely outpaced anything the imagination could come up with,” said Andy Borowitz, who has been writing The Borowitz Report since 2001.
“So it would be futile for me to outdo the absurdities of our current situation,” he added.
“I’m really more or less transcribing what is happening. And perhaps giving a slightly more blunt or unvarnished view,” he said.
For all that, the need for people to laugh is even more pronounced than ever because, he said, “the situation we find ourselves in is so dire.”
However, he notes that under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, the work had been more challenging for satirists since “the economy was improving and we had didn’t have any scandal at the White House and we had a president who was widely respected around the world, and was improving America’s image around the world.”
In the age of ‘fake news’, he makes sure his column — which now runs on The New Yorker’s website — is clearly labeled as satire and runs in the humor section, lest anyone mistake his jokes for actual reporting.
“It’s very clear that we’re not trying to fool anybody. We’re not trying to commit a hoax,” he said.
– ‘A kernel of truth’ –
That is not the case with Christopher Blair, the mysterious figure behind a series of satirical websites such as The Last Line of Defense (thelastlineofdefense.online), which have attracted a lot of attention over the past year.
He told AFP that his sites were clearly marked as satire, but a number of fact-checking websites have disputed that claim, and some have criticized him for peddling fake news for financial gain.
In March, one of his articles claiming that an arrest warrant had been issued for Obama was picked up by dozens of other sites which presented it as real news.
Blair defends his position, maintaining that it is clear to most people, and that he has been seeking “to target specific topics that we know will draw the worst the right has to offer into the public,” so that they “find themselves humiliated in front of their families and friends.”
“We’ve had pages taken down, posts removed, racists banned forever,” said Blair, describing his work less as comedy than as “a targeted liberal troll op.”
That is a long way from the straight-up political satire of the past, and frankly on the very fringes of parody, even though satirists try to do more than simply raise a laugh.
“At the heart of all of our satire is a kernel of truth,” Cole Bolton, then still the editor-in-chief of the Onion, said last May in an interview with the Vermont newspaper Seven Days.
“And we want people to see it; we want it to click for them and [for them to] see there’s a clever insight that we’re making,” said Bolton, who quit his job in September.
“And if we don’t do that, we’re not being satirists, we’re being tricksters,” he said.
“So, if people are believing it, then we haven’t done our jobs. Or they’re just spectacular idiots.”