How different are Sean Hannity and Samantha Bee? A media scholar explains how right-wing outrage and left-liberal satire have reshaped our world

How different are Sean Hannity and Samantha Bee? A media scholar explains how right-wing outrage and left-liberal satire have reshaped our world
Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly are masters of outrage — not just the emotion, but a genre of political theater — just as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are masters of ironic satire. They’re poles apart, and yet — ironically or outrageously — they’re profoundly similar, both in how they’re impacting their audiences, and why their genres emerged when they did. That’s perhaps the central thesis of “Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States,” by Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, who’s both a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware and an improv comedian with the troupe ComedySportz Philadelphia. That’s among the many different hats she wears.

The idea for the book, Young explains, came from two decades of research on the effects of late-night comedy, and always encountering the same question: “How come your examples are all from liberal satire?” Of course, she also knew that the political talk genre was dominated by conservatives, and as she read the work of scholars who studied that genre the same way she studied satire, “I started seeing these sort of parallel tracks,” she recalls. “And that opened up this possibility that perhaps these are the natural genres to which each of these sides are drawn.”

I was hooked on her premise from the first time I saw her tweet about her forthcoming book, many months ago. Young had so much to say that I’ve split our interview in two: The first part focused on the book’s central findings, the second on a range of examples — mostly in pairs — that illustrate how her insights shed light on different facets of our political media culture, as well as facets of ourselves. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your prologue talks about Samantha Bee bringing Glenn Beck on her “Full Frontal” show shortly after Trump was elected. What happened there, and why did you use it to open with?

I used Samantha Bee to open the book because she invited former outrage host Glenn Beck onto her show to have that sort of weird coming-to-Jesus moment, and I think it was actually useful for both of them. I am interested in what it reveals to us that Samantha Bee decided to invite Beck onto the show, and decided to go public with his line that she was turning into him.

I think her willingness to go there, and admit that, speaks to some of the themes I'm talking about the book. Which is that these are two genres that seem to be on two different planets — in terms of the goals and the internal spirit of the genre — but they're not that different in terms of what they provide to their viewers.

I find Samantha Bee to be a particularly interesting example in the era of Trump, because it often seems that when you watch her show, she is authentically angry. She will use jokes intermittently, but many of her jokes are drawn not from irony, but from hyperbole, She does a lot of exaggeration-based humor, but you come away feeling her anger, and that to me puts her in a different category from some of her more mainstream counterparts.

That's a way in which she's not being satirical.

Exactly. The definition of satire I go with in the book is that it’s a kind of rhetoric that is playful and meant to induce laughter, but it aims at a target and it issues a judgment. That judgment tends to be not just at institutions, people or policies, but also at the society that has given rise to those. So I think she does that latter part really well. I think she is playful. But there are times when it feels that she is leading with her politics. I think that a lot of the most successful political satirists — successful in terms of their broad appeal — they lead with the laughter, they lead with the joke. And she is often leading with her politics. I’m not making a normative judgment on that, it just changes her categorization a bit.

The core of the book involves political and psychological issues, but you start off with some history that's really crucial to set the stage. Our current political media environment began in the late 1990s, you explain, but the pattern was set more than a generation earlier. So how is that pattern expressed in the late ‘50s and ‘60s? How did it first emerge?

Once I started digging into this, I realized this really was the first chapter of the book, because there are things that we would consider to be the roots of, or the precursors to these dominant genres as we know them today. What was super helpful here on the right was the book by media historian Nicole Hammer, her book “Messengers on the Right” really traces this back through the 1950s.

She points to these radio show hosts that had these small followings, usually they were funded by sponsorships. They were almost like preachers — very fire-and-brimstone — talking about anti-desegregation movements, talking about how the United States needed to exit the United Nations. A lot of them were concerned about communists lurking inside the Supreme Court, or inside Washington and Congress. I’m talking about people like Clarence Manion and Dan Smoot. When you listen to these original broadcasts, they have a similar kind of clear, didactic, angry, imploring tone that is reminiscent of what we hear from our outrage hosts today.

These kinds of radio shows were really taking hold at the very same moment as our formative ironic satirists — those to whom we still refer today, and those to whom our top satirists today say, “They are the reason I got into this business” — when those individuals were engaging in their craft. We’re talking about the late 1950s into the 1960s, folks like Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl who pioneered an entirely new spirit of social and cultural commentary that was quite radical, not even liberal but radical in its orientation. The fact that those two moments coincided was something that just seemed like — this can't be just a coincidence, that this is how these two things are articulating themselves, and that they look so similar to what we witness today in our bifurcated cable landscape.

I was struck that the outrage on the right was specifically reacting to social changes they don’t like, they feel threatened by, while on the radical side these same changes are opening up and exposing contradictions in the status quo that they probe and engage with.

They engage with them and start asking more questions about them. And the way that they're exploring these issues is not to try to put these constructs back into boxes, but to really unpack them, and say, “Wait! Why do we even …” There’s a wonderful example I got from Ed Greenberg who'd been in The Committee and talked about the show The Cockettes, who were these sort of gender-fluid, cross-dressing men, and when he described it, he just described like just being mind-blown, thinking about “What is gender? Is gender a social construct?” To be thinking about that in the 60s like that, that is forward thinking — unpacking some of these things that we used to think of as fixed identities and exploring their truth value. That’s what I think satire is particularly gifted to do.

So, moving on to the 1990s. A lot happens from that early period to then, but what’s most salient to explain what happens to create today’s genres on the left and right? 

Just as we look back in the ‘50s and say, “Look at these two ideological genres crystallizing at that moment,” the fact that Bill O'Reilly and “The Daily Show” emerge on cable within three months of each other also strikes me as something that shouldn't be thought of as a coincidence. We have the erosion of trust in media, that has been catalogued through the 1980s into the ‘90s, and that in turn sets us up for the possibility of people wanting alternative sources of political information in new places where they can derive political meaning.

To understand that decline in trust, we have to go back to everything from changes in media technology to changes in media regulations. Massive deregulation in the 1980s under Reagan changes the media enterprise into one that is well-suited for profit, and that comes to affect the news industry in ways that change the mandate placed on news from serving the public good to generating profits for shareholders. That comes to shape what news looks like in important ways.

All of this is happening at the very same moment that the two political parties — who have experienced this sort of realignment into the 1970s — then come to put their flag in the ground on issues that are not just generic policy issues, but are issues related to social and cultural politics. We witness this cleavage with the notable moment of the “Contract With America” in 1994, and increasingly the parties separate from each other at the elite level, which then signals increasing division to the public.

So we have polarization happening in the public, a lack of trust in news organizations that is, in part, because of media deregulation and changes in news, and all of these lead to the possibility that the appetite for partisan-oriented political content is going to be great. That, combined with cable and Internet advances, means a media ecosystem that has a gazillion places for people to go and also a gazillion outlets that need to be filled with stuff. And so, with the lower-stakes game, we have experimentation and the creation of new kinds of programming and it’s sort of a perfect storm. Voilà!  Fox News and “The Daily Show.”

The patterns are repeating. Conservatives feel threatened by change, but this time their obsession with media plays a much bigger role. They see it driving the threatening changes, promoting if not causing them — so they double down, as it were. While on the progressive side, the response was bifurcated, or layered. With the cultural substance they were still using the new to explore contradictions in the old, but regarding the media’s erosion of journalistic values, they were going back to the old to probe contradictions in the new.

That's interesting, yeah. Some wonderful scholars have explored the way in which “The Daily Show,” in particular, adapted a sort of journalistic lens more akin to what we would think of as the dominant lens in the 1950s and ‘60s where there is a knowable truth, we can articulate it and we can advocate for it in ways that the news media in the 1990s were not willing to do, because they were so wedded to the sense of media “objectivity.”

Folks like Geoffrey Baym ["From Cronkite to Colbert"] and Jeffrey Jones ["Entertaining Politics"] have done a nice job on how what we got from Jon Stewart in his years on “The Daily Show,” even though it was an entertainment show, was almost a Walter Cronkite-type sense of: People might be trying to pee on your shoe and tell you it's raining, but it's actually pee. This is actually what's happening, in a way like Cronkite ending his broadcast, “And that’s the way it is.”

We don't have that kind of journalistic or moral authority from our newscasters anymore, except for in our partisan news outlets. I think it's kind of interesting that the fact we don't have journalistic authority from folks who are nonpartisan, perhaps, is part of the problem. Because there is an unwillingness to “take a side,” when truth does have a side.

People generally have a sense of what irony and satire are, but how do you define them precisely, so people know exactly what you’re saying?

The definition of irony that I'm using is that is a form of rhetoric that issues an argument that has a literal and an implied meaning that are at odds with one another. So the valence of the statement is inverted. So if you say something is wonderful, it means it’s terrible, if you say it's terrible, it means it's wonderful. That is way oversimplified, but when you really boil it down, that is how ironic juxtapositions are generally used in satire.

Satire itself is more broad. It's playful, it invokes laughter, it has a target and it makes a judgment. Now, irony is a wonderful way to deliver a satirical text because irony invites this layered meaning between the way the world is and the way the world really ought to be. So by describing the way things are as though they’re perfect, when they’re clearly terrible, or by describing the ideal world as though it is what we’re living in, when it's clearly not, both of those kinds of juxtapositions invite us to issue these sorts of societal judgments in ways that really lend themselves to satire.

You have also said that in satire the argument is delivered through the joke, not in it. Could you elaborate?

One of the things I loved about studying the psychology of humor is just how magical it is. Hundreds of years ago, the satirist was considered almost like a sorcerer, because people can’t understand, “How this person criticizing the king and not getting beheaded?” Well, because they're doing it through jokes. When you start thinking about how jokes are constructed, it becomes clear that the power of the satirist is in the fact that they do not issue the judgment themselves, they create some kind of clever juxtaposition, almost like a riddle, and it is in the solving of the riddle that the audience issues the judgment.

One of my favorite jokes that I unpack in the book is when Conan O'Brien says that Trump’s numbers in the poll are slipping, but there’s good news: he's polling No. 1 among Germans from the 1930s. So when you listen to that joke, it happens all very quickly, it feels like it’s easy. But it's not particularly easy. Your brain has to go back and say, “Wait a second, what was Germany in the 1930s? OK, that was the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. OK, so what does that mean, if he is polling No. 1 among those people? Oh, OK, so that means he's appealing to the same things that were used to appeal to them. OK, so that's what? Racism, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, right?”

So you're filling in all these blanks, it's not as though Conan O'Brien states, “Donald Trump is a racist,” or “The people who like Donald Trump are Nazis.” He doesn't say that. Because that's a completely different kind of equation in terms of what that's going to do to your audience. He invites the audience to issue that judgment. And that to me is the most delicious piece of understanding satire.

On the other side, what's most important for us to understand about outrage, as you are treating it? 

Outrage in this context is directly tied to a prior work called “The Outrage Industry,” by Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj. I'm not speaking about outrage as the emotion, I'm talking about outrage as a genre, which they define explicitly as a genre that usually has a solo host who has a clear political point of view and whose opinions drive the editorial content of the program. They engage in didactic speech, slippery-slope language, and usually that brings us into the land of hyperbole — so the land of overstatement and exaggeration. The nature of the content of what they're saying is generally slanted towards the identification of threats — threats in the form of the people, policies and institutions — but they're doing it in a way that has profound moral certainty. They’re morally serious, and they are certain about statements they are making.

What’s also important for the case that I’m building is that outrage has the trappings of news. It is supposed to be processed through the lens of serious information, not entertainment but serious information. Now sometimes these “analysis” programs, including Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and Judge Jeanine Pirro, they'll say, “No, no, no, I’m not a news show, you don't have to hold me to the same standards as a journalist. I’m a talk-show host.” But then in the next breath they will double down on their seriousness and how important they are in terms of breaking news and providing important serious insight.

That is profoundly different from the kind of self-reflection we get from late-night comics and satirists, who really do not want to speak of their importance to the political process. They downplay their own moral seriousness, they downplay their importance in the political process.

So you’ve touched on how outrage and irony fit the psychologies of right and left. I’d like you to bring it center stage. What’s the most important thing we’ve learned? 

In the last two decades, political psychologists have done experimental and survey work, and even physiological work, that has consistently pointed to distinct psychological traits between the left and the right. Liberals tend to be higher in tolerance for ambiguity. That means they are more comfortable with situations, schedules, routines and contexts that are uncertain, and they tend to have higher need for cognition, which simply means that they seek out and enjoy the process of working through information that is complex.

On the other hand, conservatives tend to be higher in need for closure. They are less tolerant of ambiguity, they are less comfortable with uncertainty, they like constructs, routines and situations that are predictable, ordered and fixed. They are lower in need for cognition, which, as I always say, is not an indication that conservatives are not smart. It's not an indication that they don't know things. It is an indication that they have a different motivation as they process information in the world. They are governed by peripheral cues, which are heuristics or shortcuts that allow them to efficiently tap into gut reactions or emotional reactions, and they do it in a way that is consistent across judgments over time. So they respond to things quickly and efficiently in a way that liberals do not.

Right. That makes sense.

These two packages to me seem to tap in intuitively to these genres — not only how they frame their arguments, but the entire spirit, aesthetic and package that they are delivered in. On the one hand, you have ironic satire, which as I have said is incomplete until the audience chimes in. It’s cognitively taxing. We know from studies with an fMRI machine that irony is actually quite complex to unpack in the brain. We also know that it is inherently an explicitly hybrid form of information, where political satirists are often delivering information and even news stories, but they’re framed as play and as entertainment. For liberals who are more tolerant of ambiguity and more comfortable with uncertainty, the fact that they’re kind of a hybrid — a little serious, a little play — they’re more open to that. They also really enjoy the process of unpacking and understanding and comprehending information that is layered, like irony.

On the other side, the reason that conservatives have a lower tolerance for ambiguity and a lower need for cognition is in part attributable to differences in brain structure and physiology that is more like a well-oiled machine designed to monitor for threat and respond to it. So conservatives are just more skilled at efficient quick responses to threats. That is what many psychologists believe leads to these psychological traits on the right.

Conservative outrage is so threat-oriented and presents information very clearly, very didactically. You don't have to work to understand what Sean Hannity is saying. You don't have to work to understand who he thinks we should be angry at, who we should fear, and what we should do about it. It's very, very clear. He also — someone like Hannity, especially — presents himself as morally serious and as certain, as news for someone who would perhaps be less comfortable with that hybridity that you have in the world of satire.

Hannity, while he may technically be a hybrid show because he’s a little entertainment and is not really a journalist, he does everything he can to hide that from you. He speaks like someone who is to be trusted, there's no room for questions. He has the information. Between that and the constant orientation toward threat, it's really a fascinating kind of content to observe through that lens, because it really works so consistently with the conservative psychology. Sometimes when I was writing this book, I thought, “Doesn't everybody know this already?” Because it feels like it works so well and it just makes so much sense.

Our conversation continues in Part 2, coming soon.

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