2014. It is the year for midterm elections. In about 10 months we will go to polling places and give our voice to the democratic system. That is, if we go at all. But should we go if we don’t stay tuned in with global and national events?
Our votes should be informed, of course. Casting votes blindly is irresponsible. And this year we are electing our senators, representatives and governors. It is not as sexy as a presidential election, but it is more important. Congress is the lawmaking body of our country, and our choices here will have the greatest impact in shaping the future.
Over winter break my father discovered a “startling new travesty afflicting our generation.” Our generation doesn’t get news from Fox News, MSNBC or CNN, but from Comedy Central. We have all heard the claim that we watch “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” more than “Hardball” or the “O’Reilly Factor.”
But how true is this? A 2008 Pew study about news consumption concluded that 18 to 29 year olds make up 43 percent of “The Colbert Report’s” audience and 42 percent of “The Daily Show’s.” The same study also revealed that our generation spends only 45 minutes watching or reading news each day. “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are half an hour each, which means if we only watch one of these satirical programs we leave about 15 minutes for actual news. But why are John Stewart and Stephen Colbert counted as news? You wouldn’t call “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update a news source, nor the satirical paper, “The Onion.”
You could argue that Comedy Central’s shows should be included as news since their stories are more than a passing punch-line and are rooted in reality in addition to interviews with a variety of public figures. However, when you compare the satirical shows against “legitimate” news programs, it is hard to tell what is fact or fiction.
My New Year’s resolution is to become better informed. I tried watching both MSNBC and Fox News. Both were sickening to watch. On Fox, I found myself listening to Bill O’Reilly correcting a fellow reporter on how to report a story because it wasn’t what O’Reilly wanted to hear. On MSNBC, it felt like the reporters were only congratulating themselves for not being ignorant conservatives, with tweets from viewers offering nods of agreement. So if satire is easier to consume, does that make it legitimate? No: satire is a potent force of misinformation. Take Sarah Palin, for example. No matter what your political beliefs are, one of your first thoughts is probably her quote, “I can see Russia from my backyard.” Except this is not her quote, but Tina Fey impersonating Palin.
Former president Gerald Ford’s reputation, too, suffers from satire. He was one of our most athletic presidents, playing football for the University of Michigan, but he is remembered as bumbling and uncoordinated due to the parody work of Chevy Chase.
This is not the first time that satire has run amuck. I cannot even begin to count how many times I have seen “The Onion” articles misinterpreted as fact on Facebook. The most famous instance may be when “The Onion” named North Korean President Kim Jong Un as the Sexiest Man Alive, duping a Chinese news source and catapulting Kim into the running for “Time” Person of the Year in 2012.
So if traditional news sources and satire have legitimacy problems how do we make an informed vote? The answer: moderation. Just like a healthy diet consists of a balance between fruits, vegetables and protein, so too does a healthy diet of information consist of news from left, right and satire to keep you honest.
When misinformation surrounds us and comes from a variety of sources, each with their own biases, the truth becomes the least common denominator.
Introduce the issue through the news source you agree with, then change your perspective and see what the other side says. This will solidify your beliefs with reason. And at the end of the day watch a healthy dose of satire, which makes fun of both sides of the issue.
This is a long process but is well worth it. If you listen to one source too much, you risk becoming a bloated font of opinions, not tried by the fires of argument and reason. If you do not pay attention to any source, you risk being swayed by rhetoric and popularity.
Consuming news is like exercising: you get better with practice. Starting now, you will discover what you believe and what you want in a candidate. Knowing what you want is the surest way to make the change you want to see.