'Outrage' is in the eye of the reporter: Why journalists keep ignoring anti-Catholic comedy

At a time when humor is struggling with political correctness and fallout from the #MeToo movement, there’s little material for late-night hosts and stand-up comedians to work with. Of course, there’s President Donald  Trump. He’s fair game given his title, ability to dominate news cycles and for his tweets.  

The other people you’re also allowed to pick on (at least from the material you see on TV) are Christians across all denominations.

Vice President Mike Pence’s perceived wholesomeness, for example, is fair game on Saturday Night Live. If he’s an evangelical (he was born and raised a Roman Catholic), then he must be a prude or a square. For example, of the 80 jokes targeting Pence on the late-night talk shows in 2017 alone, USA Today reported that “most were about his alleged dull personality, prudishness and homophobia.” The article cited a database compiled by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.

Yes, there are real academics who are actually studying this stuff.

The other group that’s fair game are Roman Catholics — period. Jokes aimed at the clergy are so common that there’s barely a ripple of outrage in the mainstream press about this subject. Jokes about others (should a stand-up comedian venture to mock gays or other religions such as Islam) would elicit waves of news coverage about how “Twitter exploded” over the issue.

Comedy can be tough. It’s supposed to be, at times, provocative. What is problematic is how pros in the mainstream press react, or fail to react, to these statements. Censoring comedians isn’t the solution, but it is important to note when the press is “outraged” and when it isn’t.

“Twitter exploded” is the key phrase here.

In the prehistoric days when I got my start in journalism, reaction pieces involved calling experts on the phone and/or leaving the newsroom (yes, we actually left the newsroom in the days before the Internet) to “get reaction” — as an editor would say — in order to offer readers broader context on the pulse of whatever the issue was. Which soda do you prefer: Coke or Pepsi? Should President Bill Clinton be impeached? Why are you voting for either George W. Bush or Al Gore? Yes, I’m showing my age with these questions. 

Things have changed. The outrage in news stories is often manufactured, with the age-old issue of bias more pronounced than ever. These days, it’s a small group of vocal voices on Twitter — with stunningly high percentages in deep-blue urban zones — get the most attention.  Check out this feature on that fact, at The Atlantic.

It’s a scenario I often call “trial by Twitter.” This has happened repeatedly in the age of social media and rise of digital journalism.

I’ve been guilty of it as both a news editor and reporter. In an age of limited newsroom sources (fewer reporters to make phone calls/interview people), social media has become the vehicle of choice to find “outrage.” But Twitter, and to a lesser degree Facebook and Instagram, often paint a distorted view of what is actually happening and allows journalists to stay in their bubbles. If no one in your Twitter feed is a Trump voter, then clearly he has no shot at winning, right? We saw how that turned out in 2016.

Last month, Pew Research released a great report on exactly who is on Twitter. You may (or may not) have seen it on Twitter. The report found the following regarding users:

The analysis indicates that the 22% of American adults who use Twitter are representative of the broader population in certain ways, but not others. Twitter users are younger, more likely to identify as Democrats, more highly educated and have higher incomes than U.S. adults overall. Twitter users also differ from the broader population on some key social issues. For instance, Twitter users are somewhat more likely to say that immigrants strengthen rather than weaken the country and to see evidence of racial and gender-based inequalities in society. But on other subjects, the views of Twitter users are not dramatically different from those expressed by all U.S. adults.

In addition to teasing out these differences between Twitter users and the population as a whole, this analysis also highlights the sizable diversity among Twitter users themselves. The median user tweets just twice each month, but a small cohort of extremely active Twitter users posts with much greater regularity. As a result, much of the content posted by Americans on Twitter reflects a small number of authors. The 10% of users who are most active in terms of tweeting are responsible for 80% of all tweets created by U.S. users.

Just 10 percent of users are most active in terms of tweeting and responsible for 80 percent of all tweet? It seems that Twitter is really no microcosm of what most Americans think. If anything, it is a very small, elite group often living in large urban areas on the coasts. That renders the “outrage” often found on it quite meaningless. Like in a crowd, those who shout the loudest are often heard.

Back to the real reason for this post: comedians, Catholics and outrage.

Some of the biggest offenders have been Bill Maher, Trevor Noah and the cast of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. These comedians never miss an opportunity to take a shot at the Catholic church. SNL did so this past weekend regarding gay priests. Why? It’s easy, and these writers know mainstream news outlets won’t bother to cover the “outrage,” especially if it is relegated to political conservatives and the Catholic press. There is no outrage when the joke is about pedophile priests or even gay ones. Aren’t they all just pedophiles, anyway?

Here’s a recent example from Noah’s on his Comedy Central program The Daily Show on April 22:

“Why doesn’t France ask for the Catholic Church to pay for the repairs? A billion dollars is nothing to them. It’s like three child abuse settlements.”

Hilarious. Not sure what’s worse — making a joke about the destruction of a major cathedral and center of faith for many or child abuse.

Indeed, I often think about the victims of predator priests. All kinds of Catholics — left and right — are concerned and infuriated about these issues.

However, these jokes are told with no regard to the children and young adults who suffered for years, many in silence until now. Noah’s remark earned a rebuke from The Catholic League, a group which often points out anti-Christian remarks by public officials and Hollywood. It received zero mainstream news coverage.

The Guardian, back in January, did ran a feature story exploring this topic under the headline, “Is stand-up comedy doomed? The future of funny post-Kevin Hart, Louis CK and Nanette.” In it, a new generation of comedians went on to discuss what is and isn’t funny.

It was all rather depressing and unfunny. Here’s a long, but essential, section from that feature:

Comic James Meehan agrees. “The thing about standup is you can joke about absolutely anything. Nothing is off limits. It’s just how well you can write and frame the joke. I know lazy comics who only complain about political correctness because they don’t want to update their material. The other people who complain are those who want a platform to spout hateful rhetoric.”

But it is not just about laziness; sometimes there is a deliberate attempt to rile. Before the allegations, Louis CK’s comedy was subversive: poking fun at the inequalities of American society, while simultaneously acknowledging the ways they benefited him. After allegations of sexual misconduct appeared last year, however, the comic seemed to react with horror at a new world that threatened his unexamined patriarchal mindset. According to reports, at a recent New York show CK made jokes about survivors of gun violence and minorities such as non-binary teens. When some listeners appeared shocked, he allegedly responded: “Fuck it, what are you going to take away, my birthday? My life is over, I don’t give a shit.”

It was as if CK had reacted to the new wave of wokeness by indicting political correctness; he became an almost Trump-like figure, amplifying for shock value and catering to an audience who probably felt as if accusations about him were false or insignificant.

Note that The Guardian piece never delved into religion or faith.

It should have since there is a long list of anti-Catholic jokes told each week. Isn’t that lazy on the part of those who write and tell jokes for a living? 

Another venue where it is regularly alright to bash Catholics is the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. One of the more egregious examples took place in the aftermath of the Covington Catholic fiasco (this is now we covered it at GetReligion), Maher criticized student Nick Sandmann on his April 25 show, calling him “a little prick.” He followed that up with the following:

“I do not get what Catholic priests see in these kids.”

Again, side-splitting stuff. The audience roared with laughter.

That comment earned some coverage from the news media, but not a lot. Most of it came from right-wing news outlets such as Fox News, Brietbart and The Daily Caller. In fairness to Maher, he doesn’t spare any religion. He has made plenty of jokes at the expense of Muslims, for example, but those often result in mainstream news coverage, like this opinion piece posted on Salon in 2017. Similarly, The Washington Post found the need that year to also address Maher’s Islamophobia in a feature piece.

These days, outrage is in the eye of the journalist.

Comedy isn’t funny anymore. It isn’t supposed to be The Guardian tells us.

There are exceptions. Aiming your punchlines at Pence and Catholics is fair game. A little media literacy can go a long way in this age of misinformation. There are plenty of “outrage stories” for editors to assign and journalists to write. It’s also a matter of getting out of one’s bubble and seeing the world beyond the confines of like-minded people in the newsroom and on Twitter.  

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