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 CNN.com editor explaining the site's obsession with Miley Cyrus's VMA twerking.