Do TV Comedians Have Too Much Power In Manipulating Presidential Politics?

In Sunday’s Washington Post, former New York Times reporter Steven Roberts reviewed a new book by three professors called “Politics Is a Joke! How Comedians Are Remaking Political Life.”

Republican-leaning readers might be left with the strong impression that comedians now have way too much power in the political process, where the candidates have to scrape and beg before them:

In September 2008, as the economy was imploding, John McCain suspended his campaign for the presidency and canceled a guest spot on David Letterman’s late-night TV show. “I’m more than a little disappointed by this behavior,” fumed the comedian, who liked to warn politicians — only half-jokingly — that “the road to the White House runs through me.” Letterman’s anger was widely publicized, and McCain was deeply chastened. He agreed to appear on the show a few weeks later and twice admitted, “I screwed up.” When the comedian responded, “I’m willing to put this behind us,” McCain practically groveled in gratitude, saying “thank you” five times.

The authors of “Politics Is a Joke!” — S. Robert Lichter teaches communications at George Mason University; his collaborators, Jody C. Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris, are political scientists at East Carolina University — point out that in this exchange the “balance of power” clearly favored the comedian, not the candidate. And Letterman wasn’t even the most influential comic of 2008. That would be Tina Fey, whose devastating impersonations of McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, on “Saturday Night Live” shredded what was left of the candidate’s credibility.

It’s not just the comedy shows themselves that drive these cartoonish narratives, but the media coverage that followed them (where many journalists incorrectly forwarded that Palin said “I can see Russia from my house” when Fey did.) NBC and MSNBC in particular put “Saturday Night Live’ skits in heavy rotation in election years. Roberts continued:

The influence of comedy shows flows from two sources. One is the jokes. The authors analyze more than 100,000 of them and conclude that the most memorable jibes play off “an obvious theme or trope” that already exists: George W. Bush is dumb, Al Gore is stiff, John McCain is old, Mitt Romney is rich. Bill Clinton was the “all-time favorite target of late night comedians” because he had two large appetites that were easily lampooned — food and sex. By contrast, Barack Obama has always been an elusive subject. “Raunchy” makes a much richer target than “remote.”

Roberts, like many media liberals doesn’t see comedy when they can’t imagine anyone suggesting Obama’s not very bright, or very competent, or very honest. See Kyle Smith in the New York Post responding to an “SNL” writer who claimed “There’s not a single thing to grab onto” with Obama, “certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature.” Smith replied:

Got that? The charter Choom Ganger, confessed eater of dog and snorter of coke. The doofus who thinks the language spoken by Austrians is “Austrian,” that you pronounce the p in “corpsman” and that ATMs are the reason why job growth is sluggish. The egomaniac who gave the queen of England an iPod loaded with his own speeches and said he was better at everything than the people who work for him. The empty suit with so little real-world knowledge that he referred to his brief stint working for an ordinary profit-seeking company as time “behind enemy lines.” The phony who tells everyone he’s from Chicago, though he didn’t live there until his 20s, and lets you know that he’s talking to people he believes to be stupid by droppin’ his g’s. The world-saving Kal-El from a distant solar system who told us he’d heal the planet and cause the oceans to stop rising. The guy who shared a middle name with one of the most hated dictators on earth....

He’s just too obtuse to see Scrooge McDuck quantities of comedy gold when they’re sitting right in front of him.

Roberts explained how jokes can inflate and amplify the negatives of a politician, but these shows can build positive imagery as well:

These comics also play a second role: providing a platform (or a couch) for politicians to advance their images and ideas. The late-night scene has become a “mandatory stopover” on the campaign trail, and in 2008 presidential candidates appeared more than 100 times on these shows.

Their aim is the same as Nixon’s in 1968: to appear as “regular fellas” (or the female equivalent), to come across as “an average guy and a good sport.” The authors actually understate the importance of this point when they say that candidates on comedy shows appeal only to a “niche” audience of “politically inattentive” voters “that takes personality more seriously than partisanship and prioritizes likeability over ideology.” My experience covering politics tells me that the audience for politicians on nonpolitical platforms is far from a “niche” group. Many voters value “likeability” above any other quality. That’s why Obama has appeared on so many different TV outlets, including daytime chat fests such as “The View” and “Ellen” and sporting events such as the Super Bowl. All these venues give him a chance to tell stories, to promote his personality, to send the message: “I’m just like you.”

During the last campaign, Romney refused to go on most late-night shows “because he believed he would be stepping into a hostile environment.” Obama occupied every couch he could find. And exit polls showed the president running 10 points ahead of his challenger on the critical question, “Who is more in touch with people like you?”

The road to the White House might not run through the late-night comics. But you can see it clearly from their studios. 

Romney wasn’t wrong to perceive a “hostile environment.” His wife and even one of his sons sitting in the audience drew hardballs on ABC’s “The View,” which has fawned repeatedly over Obama. We described this scene in our book Collusion, Brent Bozell and I made the point that all the “regular fella” shows were potential land mines for Romney at the same time every one of them was Puffball Heaven for the president:

This underlines the bizarre game of the allegedly softer interview venues. The Obamas could land the safest of softball interviews in TV environments that the Romneys would have to consider potentially devastating booby traps. One couple knew and expected a valentine. The other couple could only imagine the serious potential for hardballs, gaffes, and controversies.

So in the closing days of the fall campaign, Obama would go on Nickelodeon to be interviewed by liberal former TV news reporter Linda Ellerbee, and children. Romney bailed out. Obama would go on MTV to be interviewed by veejay Sway Calloway and college-age voters. Romney would not. Obama was fawned over by David Letterman.  Time magazine described it as “pretty much like a stump speech with prompts from Letterman and commercial breaks.” Romney knew he could not—just remember Letterman expressing his desire for Romney to be jailed for the Seamus-cartop-carrier story [putting his dog on the roof on a family vacation].

There was no concept of fair play or equal time in formats where low-information voters were being addressed by Obama. It was a slam dunk for Obama’s media advisers as they “microtargeted” their voting blocs, ultraconfident that Obama could use these shows to seem cool, funny, relatable—and Romney could not.

Republicans cannot get a fair shake from our so-called “objective” news media, and now it’s become so tilted on the comedy shows and late-night shows that they feel no compunction to be fair and let the Republican candidates have a hearing without a comic beating.

Washington Post Steven Roberts
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