Needlessly Deconstructing A Funny Joke

One of the funniest critiques of the media I have ever seen either in print or on television was from the British television show Yes, Prime Minister (originally Yes, Minister), a show that I have only seen a few times, but which from my limited viewing appears to be one of the sharpest satires of politics there has ever been.

Perhaps the most famous jokes from the show (so famous that it reached this side of the Atlantic), is about the relationship of newspapers to their audiences.  First the clip:

In case this clip is removed, here is the joke in question:

Hacker: Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; The Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; And The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

Bernard: Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.

For an American unfamiliar with the British press, this joke may seem somewhat obscure, but it is extremely funny and wryly arch (note which parts get the biggest laughs from the audience).  It is also very difficult to translate into an American paradigm.  In Britain, the newspapers, particularly those mentioned by Hacker (the Prime Minister), openly wear their political affiliations.  In America, the newspapers, particularly the large ones, strive toward a veneer of neutrality lest they be tarred as “the liberal media.”  Even a certain media outlet that openly champions a specific political party and ideology uses the phrase (lie) “fair and balanced” to describe itself.

Another issue in translating the joke is that because the United States is so large, most newspapers–particularly those outside of New York City–tend to reach only a limited regional audience.  A joke therefore about The Boston Herald, may or may not translate outside of New England even though that newspaper manifests a very clear ideology.

A third issue is that much of the American media is owned by massive media corporations who are less concerned with ideology than profits and only care about their readership to the point that their readers are buying the product.  And only then because that’s how ad revenue is generated.  For example, can the Tribune Company really care as much about The Baltimore Sun as it much as does its flagship Chicago Tribune?  (According to the television show The Wire, the answer is no.)  Only News Corp has maintained an ideology–although hopefully we are witnessing the beginning of the end for the Murdoch Empire.

Finally, the Internet and cable television have taken a drastic toll on newspapers in a way that would have been inconceivable to imagine when Yes, Prime Minister aired.  Newspapers were not prepared for the Internet and were very slow to adapt.  As such, these newspapers played catch-up for years, and in some cases are still unsure how to adapt.  Furthermore, in the United States, it is on cable television and not in the print media where partisan rancor reigns supreme.  This is where the Murdoch Empire has spearheaded an American revolution.  Even other cable channels have yet to discover a way to compete with the Pravda of the Republican party.

Having said all that, there are a few parallels in American media culture that could be awkwardly substituted for the British papers.  I have to eliminate all reference to The Daily Mail line because there is no US equivalent for a hyper-shrill, moralistic, hand-wringing, conservative-leaning paper aimed primarily at women (no one American media outlet has combined all of those attributes).

So taking this one line at a time using my replacements:

The New York Times is read by the people who think they run the country.  The NY Times is not an exact parallel with the Daily Mirror, although the NY Times does skew moderate-liberal in its content and direction (a relatively recent phenomenon).  No paper or its readers have a higher opinion of themselves than the NY Times and its readership, blissfully unaware that the rest of the country does not actually care what The New York Times says.

The Village Voice is read by people who think they ought to run the country.  Again, not an exact parallel because the Voice is a weekly and the Guardian is a daily.  Also, the Voice is now a cog in a large multimedia conglomerate rather than the standard of journalistic creativity which it used to be.  (Even at its best, the Voice was also not exactly a source of hard-hitting news, but rather a training ground for aspiring writers.)  Nevertheless, only an alternative weekly could really capture the liberal/leftist political bent of the Guardian.  I suppose The Stranger may actually be a better fit than the Voice, but The Stranger is too localized to Seattle whereas the Voice has national cache.

The Washington Post is read by the people who actually do run the country.  This one was tough.  The Post does not have the august reputation (nor the Murdoch ownership) of the Times.  Nevertheless, because the Post is the paper of the capital of the United States, and because the Graham family that publishes it has long presided over Washington social circles (the current publisher is the granddaughter of the legendary Katherine Graham), it is the paper that is most influential among the political class, i.e. the people who run the country.  Another potential choice for this would be The Wall Street Journal but…

The Wall Street Journal is read by people who own the country.  As America has become a nation that lives and dies according to the dictates of the financial markets, this is the only choice.  Despite the fact that the Journal, like the Times, is a Murdoch paper, and despite (or because of) the fact that even before Murdoch bought its parent corporation Dow Jones & Company it had a strong conservative editorial bent, the Journal is the paper that the financial class reads and trusts.  Therefore, it is the closest comparison to The Financial Times for the sake of the joke.

Salon is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country.  Have you ever read Salon?  A shrill, hysterical, unthinking leftist/left-wing Internet rag.  This one was a no-brainer.

And Fox News is watched by people who think it is.  There is really only one choice for this.  No newspaper has the influence or range that Fox News has.  And even the most conservative of newspapers in this country (such as The New York Post or The Washington Examiner) cannot compete with Fox as a mouthpiece for a political ideology.  Fox can out-Telegraph the Telegraph and then have more than enough left over to beat The Daily Mail at its own game.

New York Post readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.  This may be the toughest of the bunch (excluding the Mail, which I already acknowledge cannot be translated).  American sensationalist tabloids, most notably The National Enquirer, lack the political bent and sheer titillation value of the (Murdoch-owned) Sun.  Conversely, the Sun is sensationalist in a way that not even the (Murdoch-owned) New York Post can match.  I guess if I were forced to make a decision, it would be the New York Post, but I am making that with much hesitation, and only because of Page 6.  Another part of the joke that doesn’t translate is that when this episode of Yes, Prime Minister aired, Margaret Thatcher was the person who ran the country.  One wonders whether the Sun readers were satisfied with the size of her tits.  And with that image, I will bid you adieu and leave you to your nightmares.

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