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Historically, broadcasting networks have tried to separate news and entertainment. In 1976 CBS News president Richard S. Salant insisted on “drawing the sharpest possible line . . . between our line of broadcast business, which is dealing with fact, and that in which our associates on the entertainment side of the business are generally engaged.” By the 1990s, the lines had blurred. CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather complained in 1993 that “the Hollywoodization of news” had replaced the journalistic ethos of the Murrow era. With the rise of cable television, celebrity pundits pushed politics further into the realm of spectacle. In response, comedians created faux news shows satirizing the pundits, as they themselves became important sources of news for a new generation of viewers.

One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising, and news.—Edward R. Murrow, 1958


Barriers between Entertainment and Politics

During the Great Depression, radio networks tried to limit political satire to maintain the appearance of nonpartisanship and to prevent disparagement of the government. During the 1933 banking crisis, NBC vice president John F. Royal (1886–1978) prohibited comedy “that would tend to lessen public faith.” In 1936, an election year, Royal instructed comedians to refrain from political humor after the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Agricultural Adjustment Act, a key piece of New Deal legislation. By 1938, however, NBC seemed on the verge of relaxing their regulations, as the network’s continuity acceptance division memo demonstrates. Later that year, Bob Hope took advantage of the shift and opened his weekly NBC show with topically-oriented monologs.

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Bob Hope Blurs the Lines

In July 1952, for their first coast-to-coast television coverage of national party conventions, the networks hired comedians to bring humor to the sometimes tedious proceedings. NBC sent Bob Hope to cover the Republican and Democratic conventions, both of which were held in Chicago. A public opinion study of television’s influence on the election reported that twenty percent of those surveyed watched Hope’s commentary at the Republican convention. In addition to delivering monologues, Hope interviewed leading political figures.

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Faux News

Like That Was the Week That Was (1964–1965) and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968–1973), Saturday Night Live (1975–) presents a mock news segment, “Weekend Update,” that satirizes recent political developments and coverage by the media. The show also has given politicians the opportunity to display their humorous sides. As the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Senator John McCain (b. 1936) appeared on SNL in May 2008 and used satire to defuse concerns about his age.

Dana Edelson, photographer. Amy Poehler (b. 1971), Seth Meyers (b. 1973), and Senator John McCain on set of “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live, May 17, 2008. Copyprint. Courtesy of the NBC Universal Photo Bank (149.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0149]

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The Colbert Nation

The Colbert Report premiered in October 2005 satirizing the cult of personality that recent cable news commentators sought to exploit. Stephen Colbert (b. 1964), who first crafted his self-described “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot” persona on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, stayed in character to satirize President George W. Bush (b. 1946) and the media at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Colbert’s own “Colbert Nation” cult expanded with the publication of his 2007 bestseller.

Stephen Colbert. I Am America (And So Can You!) New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007. Courtesy of Alan Gevinson (150.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0150]

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Sections: Political Humor | Causes and Controversies | Blurring of the Lines