Canadian satirical news gains momentum, even as journalism struggles.
By Allie Graham for The Signal
On Sept. 21 the CBC shared a story that made millions of people laugh in disbelief: a Mississauga condo developer forgot to install all 120 bathrooms in his new rental building.
The following Monday Pat Kelly, co-host of the radio show This is That, was at home in Vancouver. An email appeared from Jeff Ulster, director of digital talk content for CBC Radio.
Kelly and co-host Peter Oldring’s condo story had been read and shared more than five million times. It was the national news organization’s most popular online story of all time—and it was too good to be true.
In the email Ulster told Kelly the CBC would be implementing a new mandatory rule for the satirical news show. This Is That’s headlines would now all include one word, in capital letters: [SATIRE].
Both Kelly and Oldring have been nominated for Canadian Comedy Awards. Outside their national fan base, though, not everyone gets the joke.
Some listeners have reached out to Kelly with concerns the show may negatively affect the CBC. Others who follow This Is That on Facebook have expressed outrage at its “biased” news. Some have even questioned the credibility of the reporting.
“Our goal was to make everything sound super, super real,” says Kelly. “So they really had to listen to determine whether or not they were listening to a comedy show.”
Since the headline change fewer people have been duped by their work.
Satire and journalism have a humorous, if sometimes testy, kinship. Unlike journalists, satirists do not report and write with the burden of objectivity or fact. Executed well, their work encourages the public to look at “real news” more critically.
We are seeing a shift in what is considered journalism. Journalists are traditionally taught comedy is not part of the job. But what happens when, for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, the Beaverton means just as much—or more—than the Globe and Mail?
We live in a peculiar and polarizing era. While Canadian news media takes a financial hit, with newspapers folding and reporters being cut across the country—satirical news publications and shows are finding success.
Satire and journalism are tough to get right. The mainstream news media works to serve everyone fairly and thoroughly. Satirical news flips the work of journalists upside down to offer jokes and insights. What is often overlooked is the reciprocity of their relationship—journalists and comedians benefit from each other’s work. That, and more satirists are using journalistic methods to deliver their punch lines.
Explaining the joke
Comedy can be anything that elicits laughter—including satire. But not all comedy is satire. Satire is the use of irony, exaggeration, or parody to question and criticize people and events. Canada’s satirical news publications and shows are generally labeled as “comedy” despite their distinctly satirical tone.
Satire’s earliest recorded traces are in Rome, dating back thousands of years. It was the 1640s in England when the satirical form began to show up in journalistic writing. By the early 1700s, English writers, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele were internationally praised for the humorous flair they introduced to journalism.
For centuries now satire has been used to expose corruption and cheekily challenge the status quo. In our time Canadian satire has both inspired its American counterparts, and been greatly influenced by them.
Despite a surge in popular independent satirical news sources, CBC remains the bedrock of Canadian comedy. Its long-running sketch and satirical news shows are traditionally goofy, self-deprecating and veiled with a duty to foster cultural identity.
Damn good satire
Journalists give people what they need to live in a functioning democracy: important information and all sides of a story. News satirists mock and mimic journalistic form and tone to wittily comment on and criticize current events and the news media.
“We’re not reporting the facts, we’re trying to make jokes about them,” says Luke Gordon Field, editor-in-chief of the Beaverton, “That allows us to be a little bit more carefree and aggressive in our approach, whereas traditional news media would have to be hesitant and cautious about how they report on things.”
The Beaverton launched in 2010. It’s one of the latest Canadian online satirical news publications to find success. Gordon Field says they have one million unique visitors every month. A television version aired on the Comedy Network on Nov. 9—the day after the U.S. presidential election.
Does satire contribute to a more accountable journalism and media culture? “When you have satire that is done in earnest and executed well,” says Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of journalism and mass communication, “it can really be an important part of a news ecosystem.”
Recent publications like the Beaverton “have some more bite to them” says James Onusko, an assistant professor at Trent University with a doctorate in Canadian studies. His 2011 analysis of the Rick Mercer Report is among the only academic writing about news satire in Canada.
“Student walks into a class…”
The young people reading and watching satirical news are not just laughing—they’re learning. Some journalism schools are taking note.
“I’m interested in talking about how journalism has integrated into comedy,” says Adam Nayman, a Toronto film critic who contributes regularly to the Globe and Mail.
Nayman is developing Journalism in Comedy, a new course at Ryerson. Beginning in January, students will look at the history of satire in journalism. Nayman thinks studying satirists is valuable for journalists. “Great comedians change people’s lives and make people see things differently.”
The University of Victoria in 2014 introduced Issues of Journalism: Finding the Funny, a course teaching students how to write humorously in a journalism context.
At Wilfrid Laurier University digital media and journalism students are learning from The Yes Men. An activist group that pulls elaborate pranks to gain media attention for social and political issues, they use satire and parody to dupe the public and news media. Their most successful hoax was on the BBC.
The group is Laurier’s 2016 activist-in-residence. (The residency is in its second year.) Students will study their strategies and learn the importance of fact-checking.
Not everyone is a fan. Peter Shawn Taylor, editor-at-large of Maclean’s magazine, thinks the residency risks students’ ability to report objective journalism. “One of their main aims,” says Taylor, “is to coax the media and the public into thinking what they are doing is true, when it’s not.”
Taylor says he’s a “dinosaur” in the Canadian journalism world. So although he disagrees with it, he admits this may be a new direction for journalism. “Laurier may just be ahead of the curve.”
Some satirical news shows now take investigative approaches. Comedians are talking about notoriously silly topics like policy change and social issues.
In PhD James Onusko’s study of The Rick Mercer Report he found some of Mercer’s work resembles “hard news” journalism. The Beaverton’s staff includes graduates from the Ryerson University and Humber College journalism programs. And the Associated Press refers to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver as “investigative comedy.”
In the past five years, more than 40 daily and weekly newspapers folded in Canada. Smaller, local news publications are experiencing the brunt of these cuts. This is not only concerning for news media at large, but also for news satirists. The reporting and investigative work done by local newspapers often provides the raw material for their subversive commentary.
The punch line
Satirists stretch the limits of what is acceptable to say, write, draw and screen. Still, Pat Kelly does not see his work as journalism. This Is That has, however, influenced some CBC Radio producers. Kelly says producers have told him This Is That has made them rethink inviting guests known for having unusual but unfounded opinions.
Kelly says that to be an effective satirist you need to take an absolute point of view. He realizes this is difficult for journalists.
Satire can deliver striking, poignant truths. Sometimes, though, it’s just funny—despite those who miss the joke.
“My grandma is ninety-years-old,” says Kelly. “I don’t know if she fully understands what we’re doing.”