September 30, 2020
Samantha Bee is standing outsidein her backyard in a red blazer, speaking directly to the camera. “Experts are predicting that a vaccine for coronavirus may be ready by the end of the year,” she says. “Which would be the best Christmas gift ever, right behind the board game Heartthrob.” This is the beginning of one of the latest “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” YouTube videos posted on the late-night show’s channel. Bee looks like a journalist, acts like a journalist, and is technically reporting the news. However, Samantha Bee is not a journalist. She wouldn’t even call herself a journalist, to do so would be a disservice to all the work she does as a political satirist.
“Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” is an award-winning late-night news satire show hosted by comedian, writer, and political commentator, Samantha Bee. During the program, Bee comments on current events through a comedic lens. Each week, Bee monologues about the news, often focusing on politics. “Full Frontal” is one of many political satire shows on the air along with “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” In fact, both Bee and Oliver launched their careers as correspondents on “The Daily Show” when Jon Stewart was the host from 1999 to 2015.
Political satire programs have become increasingly popular in recent years, as evidenced by the abundance of programs in the genre popping up on networks. A study published by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that 12 percent of Americans noted “The Daily Show” as being one of their news sources. The reliance on political comedy and satire makes sense, it is undoubtedly more fun and digestible to learn about current events with a dose of jokes on the side to keep things interesting. Commentators such as Bee certainly have a responsibility to ensure the information they are commenting on is accurate, even if they may only be mentioning that information as fodder for humor. Twelve percent may not seem like a lot, but the Pew Research Center also notes that this number is close to or on par with the percentage of people who list other, more traditional, news organizations as being one of their news sources. Some of these include USA Today (at 12 percent) and The Huffington Post (at 13 percent).
Committing acts of journalism does not necessarily make you a journalist, just as using a calculator doesn’t necessarily make you an accountant. In this muddled grey area between real news and satire, it is important to remember that satirists can adhere to some journalistic principles while shirking others. Bee is dedicated to the truth but she is also dedicated to entertaining her audience. Two things can be true at once: that satirists often act like journalists, yet they aren’t actually journalists.
The Pew Center provides four core principles of journalism, which include an obligation to the truth, staying loyal to the public, verifying all facts, and remaining as unbiased as possible. These are general principles, not hard-and-fast rules. For instance, many reporters who are biased in their work are still considered to be great journalists. Glenn Greenwald won a Pulitzer for his Snowden coverage, which was not objective. Or take Nikole Hannah-Jones, who worked on “The 1619 Project” for The New York Times, she was not objective either. So, assuming journalists can keep their title even after displaying bias, it is interesting to note that Bee displays all of the other principles. She reports on true events in her show, she is loyal to her audience, and she has a team of writers who work to verify facts before she jokes about them on air.
Journalists and political satirists, such as Bee, both inform the public. For the reporter, their responsibility ends there. But for satirists, after informing, there is another element at play: entertainment. A satirist’s job is not only to tell you the information, but also to put on a show. Jokes, sketches, costumes, props, musical guests, and more lend a hand in creating a political satire program that teaches you about current events while simultaneously making you laugh. This is the key factor that classifies Bee outside the realm of journalism. Even though Bee displays many of the core principles of a journalist, her ultimate goal of entertainment is unique from the goals of a journalist.