One of the most important functions of the press is its ability to “…undergird[s] democracy by explaining complicated event, issues, and processes in clear language”. This particular type of journalism is known as explanatory reporting.
Exploratory reporting has had its own Pulitzer Prize category since 1985 and has covered a wide array of complicated issues ranging from the Ebola outbreak in Zaire to the various problems plaguing the American space program to a scrutiny on the Security and Exchange Commission.
In their article, Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson make the point that “Something is gained when reporting, analysis, and investigation are pursued collaboratively by stable organizations that can facilitate regular reporting by experienced journalists, support them with money, logistics, and legal services, and present their work to a large public”.
With the changing journalistic landscape, however, there are fewer professional reporters functioning in traditional journalism capacities and newspapers, according to the Downie and Schudson article, are doing less news reporting since the turn of the century.
So where does that leave journalistic traditions such as explanatory reporting?
I’d like to propose the possibility of “soft news” taking up the mantle.
Since it is through The Colbert Report that I explore the domain of “fake news” or “soft news”, I will stick with this example to explore how soft news can be used as a legitimate journalistic device to achieve the same results as explanatory news; namely, educating the public at large on complex issues through a unique combination of expertise, interactivity, and as always, satire.
In March 2011, Stephan Colbert announced his intention to create a Super Political Action Committee, or Super PAC. By May, Colbert was appealing to the Federal Elections Committee to grant him permission to create his Super PAC and by June, the FEC had voted in a 5-1 ruling to allow the formation of what would come to be known as the PAC Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow or the Colbert Super PAC.
All of this was covered by The Colbert Report and highlighted numerous important facts about the complex world of campaign finance regulations and political action committees. Perhaps most significantly, the creation of this PAC shed light on direct implications of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which it was decided that corporations had the same free speech rights as citizens when it came to amounts of money they could spend on political advertising.
This loosening of campaign finance rules is what allowed Colbert to form his Super PAC and, through the coverage and commentary during its formation, the public has learned important things such as who exactly can form a Super PAC, what the steps are to forming a Super PAC, what the right are to a Super PAC, and also its limitations.
One such limitation Colbert encountered during the exercise of his Super PAC is that some corporations would not donate to him because then their name would appear in association with Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. To work around this, Colbert and his personal lawyer, former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter, created a 501C4 called the “Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute”.
Implications of this perfectly legal tactical maneuver are made perfectly evident to viewers of The Colbert Report. All of a sudden, we have no idea who is funding these PACs – we have no perception of their motivations nor is there any kind of accountability for the company once they give the money to the PAC.
Colbert even goes so far as to ask Potter what the difference is between this and laundering money, to which Potter replied, “It’s hard to say.”
As of January 31, 2012, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow had raised a grand total of $1.02 million dollars. By the end of the campaign and the re-election of President Barrack Obama, Colbert told viewers he still had approximately $780,000 left over.
This week, on April 12, the following exchange occurred:
“I’d like to…keep that money. What can I do with it?” Colbert asked Potter.
“Well you can use it for any legal purpose. You can even write yourself a check,” Potter responds.
“I like that,” Colbert says but then goes onto to say that he doesn’t want everyone to know what he does with the money.
Luckily for Colbert, Potter has a solution: All Colbert has to do to make the money essentially disappear from the public eye forever, is transfer the Super Pac money over into a second, anonymous 501C4 with an “agency letter” telling the Institute what to do with the money.
Then poof, it’s gone. And it’s all perfectly legal.
This entire exercise serves to enlighten the public through satiric discourse as to what happens with their money after the campaign is over as well as current problematic loopholes in campaign financial regulation.
In April 2012, Stephan Colbert received a Peabody Award for his Super PAC parody for the “innovative means of teaching American viewers about the landmark court decision”.
Downie and Schudson have reasonable fears about the future of journalism, particularly those areas which require as much time, resources, and expertise as exploratory reporting. But as the story of the Colbert Super PAC has shown, there may be a future for explanatory reporting within the context of “soft news” and that, should give us hope.