I had another piece all set to go for this morning. And then I read a front-page, "top of the fold" article titled, "'Saturday Night Live' And Stephen Colbert May be Further Dividing Americans," written by Sara Boboltz who's the Entertainment Editor of the Huffington Post. It may be one of the most ridiculous articles I've read in the whole presidential election cycle over the past two years. In fairness to Ms. Boboltz, she may not have written the headline, the words of which comes from an interview in the article and, being so confrontational, makes the whole thing worse. But given the whole thing, which you can read here, that's small comfort.
The reference in question comes from Heather LaMarre of Temple University. Just as a mere starting point to show you awful this article is -- and I apologize ahead of time for being so blunt and repetitive about using such expressions, but I can think of few other words to accurately describe it. Ms. Boboltz is probably a fine writer and a very nice person and maybe was just having an off-day, as I do and so do we all, but I'm just not sure if political analysis is her strength -- she describes her source this way: "To Heather LaMarre, who studies politics in entertainment media at Temple University..." And my immediate thought was -- Say, what? Wait, this is someone who just studies this? She's a student?? You have to be kidding me?!!" However, because I try to be diligent I took the effort to check things out -- something I'm going to guess most people reading the article didn't, as in 99.9999% didn't -- and I did my own research to check out who Heather LaMarre was at Temple. And happily it turns out that she isn't a student, but teaches there and has a PhD. Thankfully. But seriously, how do you leave that out when the person is the source and focus of your information??
But this doesn't even touch on the point that Dr. LaMarre's expertise is not politics or sociology or psychology but rather mass communication. That's okay, she at least studies communication in the political field which is substantive, it's just that the conclusions being drawn in the article seem far more about politics than communication.
And it's okay, too, that Dr. LaMarre is an assistant professor, not a full professor in the field. That's absolutely fine. For all we know, Dr. LaMarre may be far more knowledgeable than those with more titles and experience, and ultimately she was merely asked her opinions and properly gave them. Fair enough. The problem is that it shows a weak effort by the reporter to make an established point and convince the reader that the conclusions are worth accepting. However qualified an assistant professor may be (even if we all knew she was), readers need ballast to hang their trust on -- not only important titles that we accept as shorthand for one's background, but things like books written on the subject, a range of scholarly research, what career expertise exists and more. And after tracking down Temple University's staff pages, I'm not sure if five published articles, the last of which was from four years ago is enough to make a conclusive, convincing point, even more so when the reader isn't told that,
But to go further, the issue isn't just that one of the sources in the article is an assistant professor -- as I said, and honestly mean it, she really may be an expert in the field, for all we know, or not -- but rather the important issue is that she's the only source in the article, whatever her level of expertise, even the world's leading scholar. There is no one else quoted in the article or even referenced to support the conclusions drawn. There's no one else quoted to actually disagree with the point. It makes for a very unconvincing premise to serve as the foundation of the article.
And that's just the premise. The background. We haven't even gotten to what's said in the article. That's what's so head-banging here. The premise? That's just the title page.
Just a few examples of where the article goes deeply off-track into the weeds.
"But as biting as it can be," Ms. Boboltz writes, "the humor of 'SNL' and “'he Late Show' probably isn’t changing any minds. If anything, the country’s love affair with political comedy may actually be deepening the divides that characterized the 2016 presidential election, according to one researcher."
Okay, swell, a blunt, provocative point. Except -- there's no evidence presented to support this in the entire article. I don't mean not enough evidence to be convincing, I mean literally none presented. It's like if you were at a bus stop and some guy next to you blurted it out, and you said, "Well, okay, how do you know that?" And that person then got on the bus and left. I' suspect you wouldn't find it the most meaningful encounter.
All we get in the article after this initial opinion is the author telling us Dr. LaMarre's thoughts about political comedy in the past -- a time frame that is not even defined. Is it five years? A century? We have no idea. That aside, there is nothing to support any research that's been done about this current situation and the public's actual reactions. Nothing to show that no minds have been changed -- or have been changed, for all we know. Nothing. Zero.
(By the way, I would suggest that the current political climate in America is vastly different than anything this nation has seen not just in the recent past but ever. That's just a guess -- though based on political commentary saying it for the last year -- but it does offer as much evidence as the article does on its conclusions. And based of my guess, it would suggest that past models don't necessarily apply.)
Eventually, the article does actually finally quote Dr. LaMarre.
“'The people who were already anti-Trump are going to become more anti-Trump, and the people who are pro-Trump are not going to walk away from him just because of something a political comedian said,' LaMarre said."
Okay, swell. But again -- do we have any evidence of this? As in...any? Any research, any studies? Because it just comes across as a guess, even if an educated one. But here's the significantly larger point --
Let's assume for the sake of argument that what is said here is valid, that neither side is going to be convinced by the humor. (Not that that's necessarily the point of humor, but I digress.) But the headline of this article, its very point, is that this TV humor "May Be Further Dividing Americans." And yet nothing in this opinion which I quoted above supports that! All she says is that it may be solidifying the opinion that already exists, not that it's dividing it further. Those are two totally different things.
(And let us even gloss over the point that "may be" is a pretty banal and meaningless phrase, since...well, maybe it isn't.)
But even worse -- all that this "conclusion" looks at is people who are "already anti-Trump" and those "who are pro-Trump." Well, gee, here's a question -- what about all those people, say, in the middle, probably about 40% of Americans who are still trying to figure things out?? Who don't already have a definitive opinion. How does the TV political humor affect them?! That middle is where most elections are won, by the way. Swaying the independents and undecideds. And the only people discussed here are the people who've already decided their opinions. That's a massive, critical segment to leave out. "Late-night TV probably isn't changing any minds" is how the sub-headline reads. "Any"?? The entire middle of America is just an incomprehensibly large number to ignore. They actually do count among "any." And "probably" seems to require at least some evidence to support it.
Following this quote, incidentally, Dr. LaMarre adds, "Especially if they think of that comedian as a Hollywood elite." Well...okay -- so, do they? Does the viewing public think of Colbert and SNL and all the other many political humorists on TV (only Seth Meyers is mentioned once) think of them as Hollywood elites? For that matter, Colbert and SNL -- and Seth Meyers -- aren't even in Hollywood, they're in New York. Does the public differentiate between Hollywood elites and effete New York snobs? And do they think of these people this way? Or some other way entirely? For that matter, James Corden is from London -- is he ignored for being an outsider, or seen as an objective voice?
The article pushes on, not particularly being convincing one way or the other -- since nothing is presented to support the opinions, and there are no opinions from others presented to put it all in perspective. (To be fair, Colbert is quoted once, talking to an audience, not making a scholarly point, and there is a Trump tweet quoted about how bad SNL is, not funny, really terrible television. And all from the perspective of mass communications, not from the studied view of politics or sociology or psychology, or politics. (Yes, I know I said "politics," already, but it strikes me as...well, really important.) But in the end, the article finishes with something essential that is missing --
As noted, the headline point of the article is that all this TV political humor may be "dividing Americans." And the implication (accepting for just the moment that "may be" turns out to be "is") is that the act of dividing Americans is a bad thing. Which suggests therefore that, since it's bad for the country, all of these divisive TV comedians should stop making jokes about Trump and not divide America anymore. Which strikes me as a horrific conclusion because that means leaving Trump on his own, without being chided or ridiculed as humorists have done towards politicians since the beginning of time. Leave him alone, instead, to the serious political analysts to criticize and defend him -- although that appears to be pretty divisive on its own with partisan and official spokespeople defending their ground So, maybe we should just leave Trump alone, period, and not critique or joke about him. Give him the platform on his own and just let him talk and tweet away.
No, that isn't the point the article makes. It's just the only logical conclusion it leads to. As for it's point, I am yet to figure it out.