Trevor Noah's master class: It's not just Fox News -- this is the topic that needs Noah, Oliver, Stewart

Satirists break down the hidden agendas behind complicated issues. We need them desperately on TPP

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published October 12, 2015 12:35PM (EDT)

  (Comedy Central)
(Comedy Central)

For some time now our nation has counted on satirical comedians like Jon Stewart to entertainingly inform us of major issues we would otherwise ignore.   In an era when mainstream news media constantly fails in its watchdog role and when most politics seems like a circus, satire has played a major role in providing the public with much-needed information in a format that is fun and engaging.  When CNN asks whether Ebola is “the ISIS of biological agents,” we have the perfect proof that mainstream news is more about hype, fear, and spectacle than about information.

We can thank our satirists for helping the public understand the role of Super PACS in funding elections, for exposing the sleaze behind tax-exempt churches, and for consistently hammering Fox News on its lies.  But there is one major news story the satirists have mostly ignored and it’s time to ask why.

There is no story on the horizon that needs a satire intervention more than the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, which removes trade barriers between twelve nations.  The deal has been negotiated in secret, but that’s not even the worst of it. The TPP has been touted as a way to save U.S. jobs, strengthen US trade, and help “contain” China.  But critics are clear --and newly revealed Wikileaks documents confirm --that this deal is all about protecting corporate interests at the expense of both citizen and state rights.

There has been some media coverage of the deal.  Time recently published a piece by Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO,where he clearly stated that the deal was “bad for American workers” and that it only benefits corporations.  But it is fair to say that the media coverage of the TPP deal has focused more on the secrecy and on the internal politics of the Democratic Party more than on the impact of the deal itself.  We have had more stories on Hillary Clinton’s recent flip on her position on TPP, moving from support to opposition, than we have had on the devastating consequences of the deal itself.

All of this really creates a perfect storm for satire.  We have a deal that has been negotiated in secret and that promises to influence intellectual property, freedom of expression, and citizen rights at a level never seen before in a trade deal.  We have political in fighting with Obama struggling with his own party.  We have one of the rare cases where Fox News says anything good about Obama. And we even get an absurd government-made video that explains the trade deal in terms of the US trading cherries across the globe.  (Yes, they really used cherries. Watch the video here.)

So where’s the satire?

Thus far, except for a bit where Jon Stewart depicted TPP as too boring to cover and John Oliver gave it three seconds of attention, it has been absent from our standard satire venues.  This despite the fact that activists organized a media blitz back in January of 2014 to beg Stewart and Stephen Colbert to cover the deal.

Luckily we have one satirist with a weekly-televised show that has been willing to confront the story head on.  Lee Camp’s “Redacted Tonight” airs Fridays on RT America, the Russian state funded television network that launched an English language channel in 2005. RT America has been called a propaganda arm for Russia and its foreign policy, but it has also become the home for programs that take an anti-corporate, anti-establishment spin. For instance, besides Camp’s show, it also aired “The Julian Assange Show.”

“Redacted Tonight” is RT’s first comedy show and it focuses on stories that have been missed in the mainstream media.  Taped in Washington, D.C., or “the belly of the beast” as Camp calls it, “Redacted Tonight” has offered the U.S.-based, D.C.-native comedian a welcome platform for his political humor. Whatever you might think about the backroom politics that could explain Russia’s interest in supporting a satirical show that exposes the ties behind U.S. politics and corporate power, one thing is clear: Camp’s comedy offers an edge not seen on most U.S. satire TV.

Last Friday’s show headlined the TPP and he was the only televised satirist to cover the deal that week at all.  Camp opened by telling viewers that the TPP was the “largest, most aggressive deal ever devised…” and that it constituted a “complete corporate takeover” where “states will answer fully to corporations.”  He then asked why on earth our politicians would support such an outrageous deal only to suggest that it is “almost as if they are in bed with corporations.”

Watch the clip here.

Camp’s point refers to politicians, but I’m suggesting we extrapolate it to include not just the media but also satirists.  Is it possible that the lack of coverage of the TPP deal by comedians is connected to corporate influence? Stewart’s bit suggested it was too boring to cover—but certainly satirists have been able to take boring stories and make them sexy in the past.  John Oliver touched on the global trade impact of TPP when he did a story on marketing tobacco abroad, so clearly stories on the negative effects of economic trade can play on late night satire.  It’s also worth mentioning that many satirists, especially Colbert, have gone straight after mocking their own sponsors.  So why the free pass for the TPP?

Beyond wondering why the TPP has been missed by the satire big guns, Camp’s coverage offers us a chance to consider the role his show is now playing in the satire mediascape.  Camp has been referred to as  “the Che Guevara of comedy,” “Jon Stewart if he gave a damn” and “Howard Zinn after 12 beers.” Stewart once referred to himself as a turd miner.  But, if Stewart was mining turds, then Camp is mining the whole corporate turd franchise. He has been covering TPP for months now—with more than twelve segments on it to date.

One of Camp’s special skills is peeling back the layers of bullshit and asking viewers to consider why they have become apathetic about issues of major public import. He doesn’t just target the power elite and the media that covers them; he also calls on his audience to snap out of complacency.

His coverage of TPP was as much about U.S. apathy as it was about the horrors of the deal.  After explaining the impact of TPP, he asked, “how is the U.S. public responding?” Then he cut to the famous clip of the baseball game selfies.  Rather than use the clip to shame sorority girls, the goal was to shame us all.   He then went on to show a clip of two Air France executives literally having their shirts ripped off by people protesting layoffs.  The point was to poke at US apathy and wonder why the French—of all people-- are better at fighting against corporate wrongdoing than we are.

Astonished that the public isn’t taking TPP more seriously, he says, “All you need to ask yourself is: Is there anything in my life that I want decided by hundreds of corporate lobbyists?”  And, if the answer is, “’no, there is literally nothing in my life I want decided by corporate vulture fluffers," then he wonders, "why would you want them deciding the largest issues of our time?” Camp takes Stewart’s characteristic outrage up a notch and the result is brilliant.

Satire news coverage is in a state of flux: Stewart stepped down, Colbert dropped his character and moved to CBS, and Trevor Noah is still getting his footing.  Camp’s witty takedown of TPP and our tepid response to it suggests its time to look outside the mainstream diet of Comedy Central, HBO, and the major networks for hard-hitting satire news.

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By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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Aol_on John Oliver Jon Stewart Lee Camp Satire Stephen Colbert The Daily Show Tpp Trevor Noah