When ‘the powers that be’ in the West feel like vilifying Hungary once again, one of the talking points that inevitably comes up is the supposed lack of media freedom. The Orbán administration, they cry, is asserting its influence on media companies, pressuring them to spread nothing but its agenda points among the populace.
These critical voices must certainly be equally disturbed when they turn on three of the four American networks late on a weeknight. What you can find there is at times reminiscent of a North Korean comedy show, conveying the message of the Supreme Leader.
Take one of the prime examples, Stephen Colbert.
Americans are widely unhappy with the state of their country’s economy, as shown in poll after poll. Colbert took the opportunity to do a little gaslighting on behalf of the President and try to explain how the US economy is actually doing fantastic—in what was supposed to be a comedic monologue.
Colbert got his start on John Stewart’s Daily Show on Comedy Central in 1997. After eight years on the show, he got his own gig, titled The Colbert Report, which was nothing but a parody of conservative Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly’s show. There is nothing wrong with political parody. However, it was an odd decision by the major network CBS to give him the prominent spot of the retiring David Letterman in 2015, given that Colbert spent the last decade of his career making fun of the political views of half of the country.
Colbert’s competition is not shy about showing their political bias either, at times in repulsively obvious ways.
Jimmy Fallon, who is the current host of the iconic The Tonight Show which has been on the air since 1954, had former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a guest in October 2017. The segment turned into a show of public adoration for the loser of the previous year’s presidential election, with female members of the writing staff, along with pop singer Miley Cyrus, reading their literal thank you letters to Clinton (!) for the inspiration she had given them.
Leading up to the 2016 election, Fallon made the unforgivable sin of hosting Donald Trump on his show as well and had a cordial conversation with him. One of the lighthearted moments of that interview, where Fallon ruffled up Trump’s signature hairstyle, went viral, gaining over 10 million views (and an overall positive approval rating—at the time, the dislike counter was still visible on YouTube) in the next few days. By his own admission, Fallon got a lot of criticism for his stunt within the industry, despite its success. That video has since been taken off of The Tonight Show’s YouTube channel, but thankfully, we still have the love fest with Hillary Clinton to watch on the channel…
Jimmy Kimmel had incumbent President Joe Biden on his show in June 2022, at a time when he was at—so far—the low point of his presidency. In the summer of 2022, inflation spiralled out of control, forcing the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, which in turn triggered massive losses in the stock market. In the meantime, gas and energy prices skyrocketed as well. President Biden’s approval rating was struggling to climb above 40 per cent, a rarity for a first-term president.
Kimmel, however, was a gracious host to him, making visibly great efforts to keep the conversation flowing with the 79-year-old POTUS, who has not been the most fluent for a long time now. Thankfully, even his own audience noticed the pitiful display and voiced their discontent in the comment section.
All of this is happening on terrestrial television, on free air provided by the US government. TV channels have much more influence than cable TV, which is transmitted over an infrastructure that the consumer has to pay for. That is why I personally take little umbrage at the programming of cable channels such as MSNBC or CNN, which also tend to heavily skew left, but at least they do not do it on public air.
As for the network late night shows, some might clap back and ask: What is wrong with a comedian telling jokes about a politician?
Well, the problem is that they are only telling jokes about one politician, or politicians only on one side of the aisle. According to a 2020 study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, a whopping 97 per cent of jokes that targeted a political figure in the monologues of Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon were at the expense of Donald Trump.
Assuming it is just the preference of two individual comedians is naive.
Both comics have writing staffs made up of dozens of writers, and they have the financial backing of megacorporations, such as Paramount Global in the case of CBS, and NBC Universal in the case of NBC. On top of that, they have the cream of the entertainment industry regularly visit them—typically, to promote their own work, but in the meantime, to promote late night comics as well.
In the case of Colbert, the worst of the offenders, the A-list celebrity guests are replaced by prominent figures of the Democratic Party at times, who use his show as a pulpit to spread their party’s messaging.
Once the content leaves the air of NBC, CBS, and ABC, it gets reuploaded to YouTube. If you check the video selection of Colbert and Kimmel’s YouTube channels, you will find that the videos of their monologues almost all have the name of Donald Trump in their titles and an image of Donald Trump in their thumbnails. This type of conduct would normally be against the video sharing platform’s terms of service, as it would constitute ‘harassment’. Even in the case of a public figure being a target, YouTube was willing to step in at times and outright remove offending channels, as we saw with a YouTuber going by the alias ‘LeafyIsHere’. He made a series of critical videos of a popular female streamer, which got his channel with millions of subscribers deleted.
However, YouTube has gone quite the opposite direction when it comes to late night content incessantly mocking Former President Trump. In a video posted in May 2019, a YouTuber named Stephen A., a chemical engineer by trade, uploaded a statistical analysis of the YouTube trending page to his channel ‘Coffee Break’.
What he found was that late night shows were the most common type of content put on the trending tab of YouTube, and they had to garner a lot fewer views to get on trending than any other type of creator on the platform.
So, not only do late night hosts have the financial backing of large media companies and public air to create politically biased messaging, but an even larger social media company is also pushing their content towards users.
That is a sophisticated system of spreading propaganda. Had anything like that ever happened in Hungary, we would be sure to hear from international media watchdog groups and politicians from Brussels as well.
Greg Gutfeld Emerges as Highest-Rated Late Night Host
In a media landscape like this, it is quite surprising to see that the actual highest rated late night show host in the US right now is none of the cronies above. Rather, it is Greg Gutfeld, a rare right-wing comedian on Fox News.
Gutfeld first emerged as the most watched late night comedian in August 2022,
and, as of the numbers in October 2023, he has retained his top position. That is an even more impressive feat given the fact that he is on cable television, as opposed to terrestrial networks like his competitors, and he has never had any of the most famous Hollywood celebrities as guests either.
He is averaging a little over 2 million viewers per night, narrowly beating out Colbert with 1.9 million and Kimmel with 1.6 million. Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon has run the legendary The Tonight Show franchise into the ground, to last place—something that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. At his peak, the most iconic The Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson, got about 9 million viewers per night (not counting the final week before his retirement, when he pulled in 19 million per night). Today, Fallon only gets about 1.3 million.
Gutfeld’s late night success shows that there is a need for Americans to break away from the ‘official narrative’ of the mainstream media at times, and you can be quite successful in offering an alternative viewpoint in entertainment—more specifically, a much needed new one in comedy.