Jon Stewart: Satirical Policymaking

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh.

Otherwise, they’ll kill you.”

Oscar Wilde

The statement of the Irish dramatist rings especially true for our times in which not only divisive politics but also the media (by polarizing itself along ideological lines) have alienated most of the American public. However, in recent years, one member within the entertainment branch of media (the one not often considered along with the newspapers, broadcast news, news corporations, and investigative reporting that make up the traditional scholarly view of “the media”[1]) has succeeded in attracting viewers and earning their trust as a worthy news source, thus gaining some influence in the policy-making process. That member is Jon Stewart (and The Daily Show he fronts), who has effectively become a distinct agent of policymaking thanks to his critical comedy, accuracy in informing, and tendency to act as watchdog of fellow news sources such as CNN, MSNBC, and FOX NEWS.

The influence of Jon Stewart within politics and policy-making has been studied by scholars who have been intrigued by the success and effectiveness of his fake-but-true newscast four nights a week in comparison to acclaimed “real” news sources. More specifically, researchers have been trying to answer the questions: “What happens when the “news” is presented in an amusing format? What exactly is the political content of the program and who is the audience absorbing this content? Who consumes The Daily Show and what specifically are they consuming?”[2]—all which would explain how, why, and how much has Jon Stewart become an agent of policymaking.

Researchers have agreed that the basis of Stewart’s method (and success) is the “skewering broadcast and cable network television news coverage of politics as well as politicians’ efforts to spin that coverage.”[3] In other words, The Daily Show takes a critical standpoint for all sides on an issue (which tends to be a requirement of good comedy, for comedy entails criticism) usually pinpointing inconsistencies in arguments, possible fallacies, and rhetorical manipulation within ongoing political discourse and media coverage. For instance, The Daily Show will routinely show mash-cuts and comment about speeches (one new and one recent) of a politician (or clips of a certain news coverage) in which the arguments will contradict each other, thus presenting facts in a humorous and ironical way. Some argue that the method focuses more “on humor rather than substance,”[4] yet the humor can seldom be understood and appreciated without substantive knowledge and information of the issue at stake, which Jon Stewart usually provides set up of “the joke.”

Also, although The Daily Show might give the impression of a liberal/Democrat leaning due to its audience, the selection of interviewees (especially since 2004) has proven to be fairly balanced[5]. For example, during the presidential election in 2008, Jon Stewart had serious interviews with the political protagonists from both parties, from Gov. Mitt Romney and Colin Powell to Bill Clinton and the Obamas[6]; he even interviewed fellow journalists about their coverage and opinions of the election, such as Katie Kouric and rival commentator Bill O’Reilly.

With his method, Jon Stewart has accomplished not only to fulfill the media’s duty of “providing information about the world” but also to attract and engage younger audiences whom had been apathetic about electoral campaigns and the policy-making process in the past.[7]

Jon Stewart’s impact as a distinct agent of the media has been confirmed repeatedly by surveys and studies since 2004, giving legitimate proof and numbers of the magnitude of his success and the reach of his influence. First, in 2004, a report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press revealed that “21% of people under age 30 say they regularly learn about the campaign and the candidates from comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show.”[8] Similarly, in 2008, a content-analysis and survey of the Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that “the show ‘falls well shor’” of providing the ‘full news of the day,’ [while the report]  also suggested it is “something more than simply comedy played for laughs” which “was regularly watched by 16% of Americans, two percentage points higher than PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”[9] Moreover, another Pew report suggested that The Daily Show has the best knowledge ratios about politics and current events, with 54% of the audience having high knowledge.[10] A Time Magazine survey even placed Jon Stewart as a trusted journalist of the stature of Walter Cronkite[11], while another Pew report situated him at least among the popular journalists and newscasters[12].

Despite the legitimacy given by the studies, Jon Stewart himself denies any real role in the policymaking process of the United States, stating repeatedly that he is just a comedian looking to entertain with smart humor and satire. However, because his influence is real and his method of informing people and criticizing the shaping of the political agenda are effective, institutions, scholars, and journalists challenge his claim to journalistic innocence. As Damien Cave framed it in The New York Times, “If you interview Kissinger, are you still a comedian?”[13]

The value of Stewart’s impact has been called into question too by researchers and journalists, qualifying it as a negative influence for the political process rather than an admirable accomplishment worthy of 14 Primetime Emmys and 2 Peabody Awards.[14] Specifically, some researchers have accused The Daily Show’s method of informing as hurtful to politics because it promotes “less trust in the electoral system and more cynical views of the news media.”[15] Yet, said position still acknowledges the influence of the Stewart (at least) within its niche, younger audience who might be totally uninformed otherwise.

Ultimately, the value of Jon Stewart as an agent in the policymaking process resides in his power to inform (and perhaps spark interest) younger audiences (in a critical, balanced, and humoristic way) about current events while also serving as the muckraker watchdog of other news sources about their biased and manipulated reporting—a double duty that was clear during the 2008 elections. Perhaps Stewart is right in claiming that he is simply a comedian—yet one whom young Americans allow him to tell them the truth in exchange of making them laugh.

Originally published October 2010.

 

Additional Sources

Graber, Doris A. “The Media as Policy Makers.” In Mass Media and American Politics, by Doris A. Graber, 129-158. Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2009.

TIME. Now that Walter Cronkite has passed on, who is America’s most trusted newscaster? July 2009. http://www.timepolls.com/hppolls/archive/poll_results_417.html (accessed October 14, 2010).

[1] Doris, Graber. The Media as Policy Makers. (2009).

[2] Larris, Rachel. “The Daily Show Effect: Humor, News, Knowledge, and Viewers.” Master’s thesis. Georgetown University. (2005)

[3] Fox, Julia; Koloen, Glory; and Sahin, Volkan. “No joke: a comparison of substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and broadcast network television coverage of the 2004 presidential election campaign.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. June, 2007.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See 2 above.

[6] Holmwood, Leigh. “Barack Obama gives Daily Show biggest ever audience.” The Guardian. October 31, 2008.

[7] See 3 above.

[8] Pew Research Center for People and the Media. “Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe.” January 2004.

[9] Eggerton, John. “PEJ: The Daily Show borders on news show.” Broadcasting & Cable Journal. May 2008.

[10] Pew Research Center for People and the Media. “Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions.” April 2007.

[11] TIME. “Now that Cronkite has passed on, who is America’s most trusted newscaster?” July 2009.

[12] Pew Research Center for People and the Press. “Fewer Journalists Stand Out in Fragmented News Universe.”  October 2010.

[13] Cave, Damien. “If You Interview Kissinger, Are You Still a Comedian?” The New York Times. October 24, 2004.

[14] Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com).

[15] Morin, Richard. “Jon Stewart, Enemy of Democracy?” The Washington Post. June 23, 2006.

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