On Monday night, hours after the country first learned about the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, Jimmy Kimmel appeared on stage for the opening of his eponymous late night show and delivered a stinging rebuke of lawmakers’ perpetual intransigence on gun violence. Standing before a wall of photos belonging to the senators who voted against a bill to close certain loopholes, Kimmel fought back tears while demanding to know why Republicans — and more than a few Democrats — have nothing to offer Americans but their empty thoughts and prayers.
It was just the latest instance of Kimmel venturing outside the realm of traditional late night comedy to deliver an important message. Weeks earlier, New York Magazine detailed how Kimmel became a leading voice in the country’s health care debate, and on Tuesday, CNN dubbed Kimmel the “conscience” of America.
Late night talk show hosts have long occupied a special niche in the American cultural landscape. While evening news hosts like Cronkite, Jennings, and Brokaw were tasked with delivering straight-laced roundups of the day’s news, their network counterparts like Carson, Paar, and Letterman were expected to provide inoffensive, comedic escapes from the day’s foibles. But like much else in the television industry, that model has become hopelessly outdated. In 2017, late night hosts now find themselves in the thick of heated political debates.
When health care was under siege by congressional Republicans last month, for instance, Jimmy Kimmel tore into lawmakers for their lack of empathy, tearfully sharing the story of his son who required open heart surgery at three days old. When a gunman murdered 59 people in Las Vegas last week, Stephen Colbert demanded to know why nothing has been done to prevent these increasingly frequent attacks.
Conan O’Brien, James Cordon, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, even notoriously bland Jimmy Fallon—all of them have been outspoken in recent months about the transgressions of the Trump administration. Any attempt to excise themselves from politics has been met with ratings catastrophe (see Jimmy Fallon’s disastrous interview with then-candidate Donald Trump, and his subsequent fall from the top of the ratings charts), while leaning into it has proven a boon (see Stephen Colbert’s ratings turnaround once he began skewering Trump on the regular).
So what gives? Why are comedians being held up as voices of reason on matters that couldn’t be further from the world of comedy?
It’s owed, at least in part, to the steady erosion of trust in the news media. Network news hosts once served as scyphers for the conscience of America. At the height of the Vietnam War, Walter Cronkite came out forcefully against prolonged U.S involvement, prompting no less a man than President Johnson to famously remark, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” In the intervening decades however, trust in the news has fallen precipitously. In the mid 1970s, 72 percent of Americans said they trusted the media. By the end of 2016, that figure dropped to 32 percent.
Late night hosts, though loathe to characterize themselves as arbiters of anything other than comedy, are now starting to fill that void. And for good reason: With an administration as inept and cartoonishly villainous as this one, comedians are actually better equipped to respond to the news than professionally trained journalists.
The instinct by a reporter covering the White House is to ask specific questions designed to extract concrete, firm answers on policy or politics. “Does the president support gun control measures?” “Will the president sign a bill imposing sanctions on Russia?” “Is the president too cozy with Nazis?” These are all questions that, under normal circumstances, have straightforward answers.
But the soundbites that political reporters are getting from Donald Trump and his administration typically don’t have much meaning. A reporter might truly want to know what President Trump thinks should be done about Puerto Rico’s crippling debt in the wake of Hurricane Maria, but the answer she receives likely has no resemblance to what President Trump actually plans to do. In this new reality, what’s the point of White House press briefings anymore? Nonetheless, the structure of political journalism hasn’t yet meaningfully adapted to effectively cover Trump.
An assumption (and fear) when Donald Trump took office earlier this year was that he would run the White House like he ran his business empire. Instead, eight months into this administration, he has run it more like his reality television show. Reporters are not used to playing by the rules of reality television. But comedians very much are.
Unlike reporters, whose crippling obsession with presenting two sides to stories where only one side exists has led to half the country not believing climate change is real, late night hosts are beholden to no false balance doctrine. When a lawmaker insists on camera, falsely, that his health care plan doesn’t do away with protections for patients with pre-existing conditions, journalistic ethics precludes many reporters from calling him a liar. It’s the comedians who are quick to call bullshit — and audiences are showing appreciation for their candor.
It’s a lesson that news organizations are slowing learning as the Trump administration lurches on. In the last year, public confidence in the media has begun to tick back upwards even as Trump’s own trustworthiness continues to plummet.