This is an excerpt from my contribution to Alternative Media Meets Mainstream Politics edited by Joshua D. Atkinson and Linda Jean Kenix (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
What does the field of alternative media studies have to say about the increasingly prominent role irony, parody, and satire play in contemporary political communication? The short answer is: not much. This silence is surprising in light of press accounts and academic studies that routinely describe satirical news programs such as The Daily Show, The Rick Mercer Report and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver as “alternative sources” of news, information and analysis (Acken 2014; Jones and Baym 2010; Tinic 2009). Briefly, I offer three provisional reasons why this is so.
First and foremost, until recently theoretical and conceptual debates over what we mean by “alternative media” have dominated the research agenda (Armstrong, 1999; Atton 2002; Downing et al. 2001; Hamilton 2009). At the risk of diminishing the importance of pursuing foundational questions, this work is sometimes preoccupied with legitimating alternative media (studies) in academic circles and, to a lesser extent, the wider culture. This defensive posture overshadows other, equally important lines of inquiry.
Second, the motivations behind and content produced by alternative media workers – and likeminded practitioners who self-identify as radical, citizen, participatory and community media makers – are quite serious (Coyer, Dowmunt and Fountain 2007; Downing 1984; Howley 2010; Rodriguez, 2001).
Put differently, alternative media’s challenge to the concentration of symbolic power is no laughing matter. Or so it would seem. Finally, the field’s concern with DIY, grassroots, and tactical media rarely considers the possibility of interventionist forms, genres, and practices emerging from dominant media institutions (e.g., Raley 2009).Nevertheless, there are signs alternative media studies have overcome these growing pains and moved from the margins to the center of contemporary media studies (Couldry 2002). Several lines of inquiry are especially useful for my purposes here. For instance, recent studies find the presumed dichotomy between mainstream and alternative media fails to materialize under empirical scrutiny (Hajek and Carpentier 2015; Kenix 2011). Rather than understand alternative media as a distinct and autonomous sphere of activity, scholars find considerable evidence of interaction and interplay between alternative and mainstream forms and practices (Abel and Barthel 2013; Atton 2004; Atton and Wickenden 2005). Similarly, with it’s attention to the hybrid and contingent character of media practice, the study of “media interventions” (Howley 2013) reveals the fluidity and co-presence of the alternative in the mainstream and vice versa.
Significantly, this tendency is most evident in alternative journalism practice (Butler and Howley 2013; Hamilton 2016; Harcup 2005). Indeed, historical analysis demonstrates that the relationship between dominant, oppositional and emerging forms of journalism has long been fluid and dynamic (Forde 2011; Williams 1970). Atton and Hamilton put it succinctly: “The relationship between alternative and mainstream journalism is not a one-way street. Neither are borrowings, transformations and interminglings” (2008, 11). Despite these findings, however, students of alternative media overlook the “alternative journalism” of satirical news, leaving it to scholars of popular culture and political communication to examine this important dimension of contemporary media culture.
For instance, in her study of parodic news, satirical documentary, and ironic media activism, Amber Day (2011) highlights the critical role these hybrid genres play in contemporary political discourse. Day argues that a defining feature of these new and emergent forms of political humor “is their striking seriousness of purpose, where irony is put to use in the service of real political aims, pointing to flaws in the existing political discussion and gesturing toward possible solutions” (4-5). Viewed in this light, the affinity between alternative journalism and these humorous interventions are, or rather should be, plain to see.
Likewise, the editors of Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era contend that programs such as South Park, The Chappelle Show and The Boondocks serve as “sources of political information acquisition, deliberation, and popular engagement with politics” (Gray, Jones and Thompson 2009, 6). In his contribution to that same volume, Geoff Baym makes a compelling case for understanding The Colbert Report not as “fake news” but rather “a kind of alternative journalism” (Baym 2009, 126). Adding that satirical news programs represent a form of “oppositional news, one that uses humor to provide the kind of critical challenge that is all but absent in so-called real news” (127).
In short, a great many of the qualities attributed to contemporary political satire – promoting civic engagement, facilitating democratic deliberation, challenging conventional journalism – are cornerstones of alternative journalistic practice. And yet, few students of alternative media take satirical news seriously.
Following Graham Meikle’s (2009) analysis of British comedian Chris Morris’s satiric public affairs program, The Brass Eye, this chapter considers the role of the satirist in realizing many of the aims and objectives associated with alternative media practice. Especially alternative media’s capacity for challenging, as well as exercising, “media power” – understood here as the concentration of symbolic power in media institutions, professions, and personalities (Couldry and Curran 2003; Couldry 2013). For Meikle, the media satirist “occupies a distinct position in relation to the exercise of symbolic power, able to simultaneously deploy this power while, at the same time, trading in powerful criticisms of its exercise by others” (10).
Well into his fourth decade of broadcasting, Harry Shearer produces a weekly radio program that takes a jaundiced look at news, politics, and popular culture. Doing so, Le Show serves as a form of alternative journalism: one that offers incisive and engaging criticism of media power – and the journalists, marketers, celebrities, and politicians who wield it – while exercising that power to equally uproarious and edifying ends. That Shearer’s program is syndicated through NPR (formerly National Public Radio) – a system originally conceived and widely understood as an alternative to commercial broadcasting, but frequently criticized for its adherence to corporate news values and practices – makes Le Show an especially rich site to examine the increasingly complex relationship between alternative media and mainstream political communication.