The Onion, Jon Stewart, and the Rise of the Bashful Social Critic

Why don't America's most effective, moral voices want to claim any credit for what they're doing?

Max Taylor/The Atlantic

Time was being a social critic was a coveted position. Gaining a huge audience and wielding one's pen to influence the public was a proud vocation that demanded concerted effort. Oh, sure, comedy and satire were a powerful tool—just ask any of the subjects Voltaire skewered in Candide. But comedy wasn't the end in itself.

Today, however, the nation's most influential satirists seem determined to disavow their influence. Take Cole Bolton, editor in chief of The Onion. Asked by Mark Leibovich at the Washington Ideas Festival on Wednesday how he defined himself and his publication, Bolton said he was a comedian first, a satirist second, and only a social commentator third.

"We like standing up for the little guy, we like punching up," Bolton said. "At the same time we do completely absurd stuff. Our main goal is just to make people laugh." Asked to name a favorite item, he cited an Onion post that was nothing more than a headline full of wordplay: “Jurisprudence Fetishist Gets off on Technicality.” (I'll wait.)

Bolton's bashfulness is similar to Jon Stewart's (much maligned) claim that he's just a late-night comedian and not a political pundit. Of course, that's hard to square with a reality where many people say they get their news from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, or with some of The Onion's strongest, best-known hits, from "New Breeding Program Aimed At Keeping Moderate Republicans From Going Extinct" to a faux-first person piece by a editor explaining the site's obsession with Miley Cyrus's VMA twerking.

Asked whether he enjoys it when people think articles are real news, Bolton admitted he was entertained when Chinese media mistook a story claiming that Kim Jong Un had been named sexiest man alive, but he took a bit of umbrage when Representative John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican, fell for a 2011 joke that Planned Parenthood was opening an $8 billion "Abortionplex." It's that rawness that suggests how seriously Bolton takes the social-commentary rule: The satire only works its magic if people take it for what it is. And Bolton implicitly endorsed the "afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted" credo treasured by journalists and social critics. "We always try to make sure we’re not making fun of victims," he said. "Nothing is off limits as long as we find the right angle."

What accounts for this bashfulness among such powerful voices—especially ones with a clear sense of moral purpose like Bolton and Stewart—today? Surely one reason is the crisis of confidence in traditional media; there's good sense in trying to dissociate oneself from a sector that's widely distrusted and in business trouble. (There's a reason NBC reportedly tried to hire Stewart to take over its flagship Meet the Press franchise, and a reason, presumably, that he declined.) But perhaps this attitude also says something about an age of skepticism about institutions and sincerity.  As The Onion's success shows, disavowing any social message or any sort of earnestness may be the most effective way to get a social message across. If that sounds like a joke, well, even Cole Bolton couldn't make it up.