A few weeks ago, I attended a Johnston County School Board meeting where Madison Cawthorn and a slew of anti-mask protesters showed up to fight mask requirements, despite the fact that one-third of new COVID-19 cases in North Carolina are occurring in children under 17.
The Daily Show also was there. A fellow reporter pointed me to Jordan Klepper, a tall unmasked man in sunglasses keeping an equal distance from the media and the protesters.
Klepper’s segment, “Finger the Pulse,” involves him going to different parts of the country to interview vocal conservatives on their political takes. His September 23 segment from Johnston County included anti-maskers worried about mask smells and acne, a protester who said she didn’t vote in school board elections, and another woman who drew parallels between Satanism and COVID protocol.
He didn’t correct misinformation or mention the school board’s eventual vote to keep requiring masks, because he didn’t have to: the segment assumes its audience only wants to have a quick laugh, not that they want to think more about those living in Johnston County. The viewer is a voyeur in the South as they believe it to be: mostly white, mostly rural, mostly conservative.
This brand of political humor is popular in a post-Trump United States. It looks at the chasm between similar people on the right and the left and gives the left binoculars in which they can observe across the aisle, ignoring their own leaders’ failures to enact change. Even for those of us firmly progressive in the South, these stories are embarrassing and infuriating; there’s one more barrier to productive conversation.
Watching The Daily Show is not an act of defiance. It does not challenge its viewers to consider what has created this divide, or to examine their own biases. Their commentators don’t challenge liberals on their own voting records, or question them on the visible failures of the Biden administration. Viewers are supposed to assume that they have more in common with Klepper than they do with the protester, and that’s enough to satisfy them.
Comedian commentators aren’t the only ones to blame. A flood of stories attempting to showcase “the typical Trump voter” came out of The New York Times and The Washington Post after the 2016 election in an attempt to demystify the racism, religious fervor and economic realities that aren’t all that secret. A recent iteration came from the Sept. 19 episode of CBS Sunday Morning, when journalist Ted Koppel visited my hometown.
I grew up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. So did Andy Griffith. While The Andy Griffith Show’s fictional “Mayberry” is an escape from the political turmoil of the 1960’s, my Mount Airy was real and flawed. Still loved, but flawed.
Koppel mostly spoke to tourists. The president of the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce pointed out that the growth in tourism was a reaction to the loss of mill jobs. A local Black family discussed the racism they experienced and why they stayed, after which Koppel admitted “Mount Airy becomes more complicated with every conversation.” Then, he went back to interviewing tourists.
At one point, a trolley ride begins dissecting the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt. After sharing their thoughts poisoned by misinformation, someone mentions that they find it hard to trust the media.
“I just hope when this airs, it won’t show southerners as a bunch of dumb idiots,” one woman says. Instead of using that moment as a point of introspection, CBS shared the conversation on social media separate from the entire segment. Their goal was to evoke the same reaction Klepper looked for: Look at these idiots in North Carolina.
These jokes are harmless until they aren’t: until it’s New York Times podcast host Michael Barbaro attributing Southerners driving during the pandemic to carelessness instead of a lack of transportation, or people saying Texans deserve to die because their state’s electrical grid failed. It’s funny until you realize marginalized people living in the South are ignored because their struggles aren’t fun to watch.
If Jordan Klepper, Ted Koppel, or anyone else still selling this sort of news in 2021 want to listen, I’m sure there are groups across the state who would love more attention to their causes. It’d probably be better for all of us.