Television

Midnight Bias

Can the nation survive without fair and balanced Sarah Palin jokes?

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Like Patty Hearst brandishing a semi-automatic carbine during an SLA bank robbery, Sarah Palin didn't actually do much during her celebrated appearance on Saturday Night Live this weekend. But it was a shocking tableau nonetheless. After mocking Palin relentlessly for the last month, the liberal terrorists at SNL actually kidnapped the vice presidential candidate, brainwashed her, and made her complicit in their crimes against democracy.

Is it time, perhaps, to get serious about the War on Punchlines? Surely it must have been tough for conservatives to watch Palin's uncharacteristically docile performace; instead of Sarah Barracuda, she was Miss Congeniality, reduced to accepting smarmy compliments from Alec Baldwin. But she was there on her own accord, apparently without preconditions. And however much one might want to rail about the show's liberal bias and its double standard—would Barack Obama have been treated so dismissively?—it ultimately makes the most sense to simply treat late-night comedians like late-night comedians—and that means realizing they're exempt from journalistic notions of fairness and balance.

Not everyone seems willing to be so logical. Last week, for example, the Center for Media and Public Affairs shared its latest findings with Fox News: In the five weeks after John McCain announced Palin as his running mate, the CMPA revealed, Jay Leno and David Letterman told 286 jokes involving those two candidates, and only 42 jokes involving their opponents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. "Generally the Republicans get targeted much more often than Democrats, but this election is driving it off the charts," CMPA Executive Director Donald Rieck explained.

The path Rieck traveled to arrive at this conclusion is impossible to trace, at least if one relies on CMPA's own statistics. From January 1 through September 16 of this year, for example, Leno and Letterman told 717 jokes about Democratic candidates and 602 jokes about their Republican counterparts. During an eight-month period in which the CMPA tracked late-night jokes in 2004 on Leno, Letterman, Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and The Daily Show, Republicans led the tally but not by any margin that could credibly yield the phrase "much more often"—the final count was 990 jokes to 858. In the 2000 presidential campaign, a 14-month count yielded 697 jokes involving Republican candidates, 632 involving Democratic ones…and 1189 involving incumbent Bill Clinton.

Fox News didn't bother to report any of that. Instead, it simply concluded that "the Kings of Late Night are not equal-opportunity destroyers this year when it comes to telling jokes about the candidates for president and vice president—they're hammering Republicans a stunning seven times more often than they skewer Democrats." Got that? Somehow, five cherry-picked weeks, in which a winking, witch-proof gift from comedy heaven made her debut on the national stage, has been magically transformed into a full year of lopsided Republican hammering. Or to put it another way: The journalists at Fox News are using a deliberately misleading data point to smear the journalistic ethics of comedy writers!

That takes an admirably well-developed sense of irony, no doubt, but where does it lead? A few weeks ago, former SNL writer and current would-be senator Al Franken suggested an idea for a sketch to his old boss at SNL, Lorne Michaels. Michaels put Franken in touch with the show's current head writer, Seth Meyers, and Meyers ended up writing a piece that showed John McCain approving outrageously misleading attack ads against Barack Obama.

Conservative pundit Bernie Goldberg was incensed by Franken's role in the sketch's creation and expressed his displeasure on The O'Reilly Factor. But while Goldberg went on at length about Franken's "vested interest in trashing John McCain," the most striking thing he said had nothing to do with the comedian/candidate. Instead, it came when Goldberg was imagining what his response would have been had Franken played no role in the sketch's creation. "Maybe the only problem I would have had is why don't [they] do one about Barack Obama?" he mused.

Obviously, SNL does do sketches about Obama. In fact, in an earlier appearance on The O'Reilly Factor this year, Goldberg credited one of those sketches with inspiring the media to stop treating Obama with such servile deference. But apparently the occasional Obama sketch is not enough to satisfy Goldberg's sense of fairness and balance. What he would really like, it seems, is a more quid pro quid approach: Each time SNL airs a Sarah Palin sketch, it must immediately follow it with one about Obama.

No doubt Goldberg would stop short of mandating government intervention to achieve such ends—that would align him a little too intimately with the likes of Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry, both of whom are reportedly eager to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine. Instead, it's more likely that Goldberg is simply trying to normalize the preposterous idea that late-night comedy shows should be held to even higher standards of fairness and balance than most news shows attain these days. (Does The O'Reilly Factor run one anti-McCain story for every anti-Obama story it airs? Does Countdown with Keith Olbermann do the reverse?)

For years, Lorne Michaels has insisted SNL has no agenda other than laughs—it ends up skewering everyone in its pursuit of comic efficacy. Jon Stewart says the same thing about The Daily Show, and there's statistical evidence to back him up. Listen, however, to what some SNL cast-members have been saying lately. According to Amy Poehler, "trying to take fair hits is kind of the shared collective of the place." Seth Meyers says, "The trick with all of these people is to try to come out as fair and evenhanded as possible." By pairing Tina Fey as Sarah Palin with Poehler as Hillary Clinton, they "made it safer to mention things about Sarah Palin without making it seem like an attack piece."

Apparently, the agenda is shifting, with fairness and balance being pursued not out of desire to expand the field of potential targets, but simply for the sake of being perceived as fair and balanced. If Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers worked for some news organization that touted its objectivity as a major selling point, their commitment to even-handedness would be commendable. Given that they work for a supposedly fearless and irreverent comedy show, however, their neutral, let's-throw-everyone-a-bone approach to comedy just seems sadly funny. Maybe it's time for a real maverick like Sarah Palin to shake things up there and end the comic earmarking.

At the same time, one can't help but wonder if the last laugh will end up on Goldberg, Fox News, and the CMPA. In August, a Rasmussen Reports telephone survey found that 47 percent of the public believes that the government "should require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of conservative and liberal political commentary." Democrats support the idea more than Republicans do, with 54 percent of the former and 43 percent of the latter agreeing with the statement. But the number of Republicans who say they favor the idea is rising—in 2007, Rasmussen Reports asked the same question and only 40 percent of Republicans answered affirmatively.

The percentage of Democrats embracing the idea rose in 2008 too, but at least there's a logical explanation for their support: Resurrecting the Fairness Doctrine would dramatically alter the talk radio world. At the very least, every station that airs conservative talkers would be compelled to carry contrasting viewpoints. Alternatively, if they decided such an approach wasn't economically feasible, they could stop airing political commentary altogether.

How many Republicans, one wonders, would willingly jeapordize fifteen hours of Sean Hannity's radio show each week just to make sure SNL lampoons Barack Obama as often as it lampoons Sarah Palin? If SNL's in-house Obama impersonator, Fred Armisen, happens to have a Republican agent, then the answer is one. If not, it's zero. But essentially that's the deal pundits like Goldberg are paving the way for every time they insist that the late-night comedy world's supposed lack of fairness and balance is a problem in need of a solution.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his reason archive here.

Editor's Note: We generally don't run letters about reason online pieces (that's what the comments section of the blog is for). One of the exceptions is when a source or a subject in a story makes an objection. Here is a note from Donald Rieck of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, whose work is cited in a recent article by Contributing Editor Greg Beato. It's followed by a reply from Beato.

In his article "Midnight Bias: Can the nation survive without fair and balanced Sarah Palin jokes?," Greg Beato questions the logic behind the following quote and data analysis in a recent Fox News online article:

"Not everyone seems willing to be so logical. Last week, for example, the Center for Media and Public Affairs shared its latest findings with Fox News: In the five weeks after John McCain announced Palin as his running mate, the CMPA revealed, Jay Leno and David Letterman told 286 jokes involving those two candidates, and only 42 jokes involving their opponents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. "Generally the Republicans get targeted much more often than Democrats, but this election is driving it off the charts," CMPA Executive Director Donald Rieck explained."

Beato cited data from varying time parameters (January 1 to September 16 of this year; January 1 to August 24 of 2004; and what he termed as a "14 month" count during the 2000 election) to point out that Republicans are not excessively targeted by political jokesters, and that to characterize the ratio of jokes as being "off the charts" makes no sense other than to suggest the unfunny business of a partisan agenda. "The path Rieck traveled to arrive at this conclusion is impossible to trace," he writes.

The Fox reporter asked how previous Republican and Democratic general election candidates fared in similar (post convention-general election) periods and I noted that, generally, Republican candidates are "much more often" the target than their Democratic counterparts. 

Here is the total (post-convention) general election political humor data for presidential candidates 1992 through 2006:

Year

GOP Candidate

GOP Candidate Jokes

Dem. Candidate

Dem. Candidate Jokes

1992

George H. Bush

161

William J. Clinton

66

1996

Robert Dole

208

William J. Clinton

164

2000

George W. Bush

254

Albert Gore

165

2004

George W. Bush

261

John F. Kerry

135

 

 

884

 

530

In his article, Beato also seems to try to place CMPA on one side of the debate over the fairness doctrine. CMPA, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan affiliate of George Mason University, conducts these studies to improve the debate on media coverage and not to favor any party, candidate or policy. We cannot police how reporters or pundits use our data, but we always try to give them the full picture and point out the limits of what can and can't be said.

Sincerely,

Donald Rieck, M.A., M.B.A.
Executive Director
CMPA/STATS
Washington, DC

Greg Beato responds: I appreciate Donald Rieck's interest in my piece, and the additional information and statistics he provides in his response. In the Fox News article, Rieck is quoted as follows: "Generally, the Republicans get targeted much more often than Democrats, but this election is driving it off the charts."

In his response to my piece, Rieck explains that he was responding to a fairly specific question; apparently the Fox reporter asked him "how previous Republican and Democratic general election candidates fared in similar (post convention-general election) periods."

Since the Fox News article makes no explicit reference to "general election candidates" or "similar (post convention-general election) periods," and since Rieck prefaces his remark with the word "Generally," I assumed that he was speaking about late-night comedy coverage of presidential elections in general, with no qualifiers or distinctions.

To get a better idea of what Rieck meant by "much more often," I went to the CMPA website to look at the statistics it compiled from past elections. What I found there is the information I include in my piece. The time periods I cite-"January 1 to September 16 of this year" and the others-are simply the time periods that CMPA used in its previous studies. That is, I didn't make any effort to pick time periods that would show greater balance in candidate joke coverage than Rieck's quote implied; I simply used whatever information CMPA had posted on its site.

As I show in my article, that information makes it clear that when you remove distinctions such as "general election candidates" and "post convention-general election periods," overall late-night comedy coverage of presidential candidates is fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Given Rieck's stated commitment to giving reporters and pundits the full picture, I am sure he can appreciate my desire to add context to the narrow portrait of late-night comedy election coverage that the Fox News article presents.