Editorial: The Funny Business: Sen. Sanders on 'Colbert Report' (Valley News)

Hearing that Bernie Sanders had appeared on the Colbert Report, we thought it our reportorial duty to download the video stream and watch Vermont's Independent senator parry the questions put to him by a practiced television comedian.

For those who store their TVs in the closet or spend their evenings with Tolstoy, the Colbert Report (pronounced en francais) is the tremendously popular satirical news show on Comedy Central in which Stephen Colbert spoofs sanctimonious cable commentators like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly or CNN's Lou Dobbs. He routinely invites members of Congress onto the program -- usually to skewer them. "I wouldn't recommend that anyone go on the show," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once said.

But Sanders did go on, for reasons only he and his media advisers really know for sure. We suspect the benefits of reaching voters and potential donors had something to do with the decision. The Colbert Report has a substantial audience share, particularly among young adult viewers. A little embarrassment may be a price worth paying for wider recognition among a certain demographic, even for a self-described democratic socialist. In fact, Pelosi might want to re-think her position after reading the forthcoming The Colbert Bump in Campaign Donations, a non-satirical academic paper by James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Democrats who appeared on Colbert raised 44 percent more in donations after the broadcast than Democrats who did not, Fowler found, while Republicans saw no such "bump" after their appearances.

Whatever Sanders' motivation, the six-minute segment, which originally aired April 21, is worth watching. For one thing, Sanders gave a lively performance -- if "performance" is the word for a politician who remained true to type throughout the interview. For another, he offered a pretty good summation of his left-leaning views. Six minutes of airtime is practically an eternity in most news formats, and Sanders managed during that interval to highlight some of the country's most pressing social problems: health care ("a right of every man, woman and child"); college affordability (if Finland can offer it free, so can we); child poverty; incarceration rates that exceed China's; and the growing inequality of incomes. "So you're going to punish the billionaires?" asked Colbert in mock outrage. "Damn right I am," Sanders shot back without apparent irony, arguing that something's seriously amiss when the upper one-tenth of 1 percent in this country earn more than the bottom 50 percent combined.

Whatever one may think of Sanders' political views and policy prescriptions, watching him speak on Colbert was a kind of post-modern experience. Talk about cognitive dissonance! Was this comedy, public affairs programming in disguise or some other genre yet to be named?

Whatever it was, the Sanders/Colbert encounter was another reminder that political information and entertainment are converging in a country that, generally speaking, has little appetite for serious discourse broadcast with a straight face. In fact, if anecdotal evidence is any guide, increasing numbers of viewers are gravitating toward fake news in the Colbert mold in the apparent belief that such programs no more distort the truth than the increasingly partisan commentary and selective sound bites typical of real TV news packaged as "info-tainment." Little wonder that striving politicians, including the presidential candidates, view appearances on Colbert and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, also on Comedy Central, as practically obligatory.

To be sure, comedy and political satire have their uses. But as old fogeys of old media, we can't help wondering where this media convergence will lead and whether democracy, which depends on a well-informed electorate, will be the better for it.