In spring 1998, as a senior political science major at the University of New Hampshire, I took a transformative course on media and politics. The main text, W. Lance Bennett’s News: The Politics of Illusion, became my bible. I started to see that my twenty-something cynicism toward media and politics was at least in part driven by institutional problems within the news: Media deregulation of the ’80s and ’90s had increased pressure on the news industry to cut costs and maximize profits, thereby reducing investigative reporting and foreign coverage. The resulting pressures had also led to an emphasis on news that was overdramatic, hyper-personalized, fragmented, and supportive of the existing social order. On top of all this, political professionals had learned how to use these constraints to their advantage, increasing the role of handlers and spin machines in the deliberate construction of political issues and images through the news.
Over the course of the semester, I became appropriately outraged. I sipped my latté with anticipation as I got to Bennett’s last chapter: “Freedom from the press: Solutions for concerned citizens.” “Proposals for citizens,” it read. “Become better informed by decoding the news.” Sounds good. We have to become critical news consumers. But how?
Bennett outlined five recommendations, ranging from discounting standard story formulas to paying attention to stray facts and recognizing spin. And finally, urged Bennett, citizens could seek out “additional sources of information” and run “independent checks on various claims.”
Sounds awful. Politics is dominated by spin, the news media aren’t adequately explaining the important issues of the day . . . and now the burden is on me?
To be fair, Bennett also had recommendations for politicians and journalists, but there was no avoiding the idea that as a citizen, my best option to counter the deleterious effects of this news-politics mess was to think harder, look more carefully, and read more.
Cut to 2007: I was attending the annual meeting of the National Communication Association in Chicago. Overconfident from learning that Bennett had recently cited a study of mine in defense of the political satire of Jon Stewart, I told him my concerns about the last chapter of his book. Specifically, I told him that it read like it was written by a single, childless male with lots of time on his hands.
Fortunately, he laughed. And then he admitted that when he wrote those recommendations, he was just that.
Over the following months, through email correspondence, Bennett and I discussed alternative solutions to the problematic political-information landscape; accessible—even enjoyable—ways for citizens to demystify political discourse and help keep politicians and media institutions accountable; ways that wouldn’t frustrate and overburden citizens.
Chief among them? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
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Four nights a week on Comedy Central, the Colbert Report and its mother ship The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, use parody and irony to criticize politicians, political processes, and the mediated news environment. The two shows recently celebrated their eighth consecutive quarter as the top-rated, late-night talk shows among numerous key demographics (including the coveted youngest, and male-est: adults 18-24 and men 18-24). With between 1.9 and 2.5 million viewers each night, plus the largest online viewership of all the late-night shows, Stewart and Colbert have the potential for significant reach and influence.
Their “late-night talk show” label notwithstanding, both shows break the rules of the genre by consistently treating politics in the context of entertainment, and by the divergent sources of critical acclaim they have received through the years. Between them, the two programs have won 20 Emmy and four Peabody awards, and The Daily Show has received Television Critics Association awards for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy and Outstanding Achievement in News and Information.
In spite of the commercial success and critical acclaim, Stewart and Colbert’s contributions to our political discourse are still under debate. On the one hand are scholars, journalists, and viewers who see these shows as an accessible and important source of political understanding and inspiration. On the other are critics who worry that the humorous treatment of serious political issues and events will trivialize them and foster even more cynicism about our political institutions and processes than already exists. “Our specific charge is that Mr. Stewart has engaged in unbridled political cynicism,” wrote Roderick Hart, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas, and his then-doctoral student, Johanna Hartelius, in a 2007 essay entitled “The Political Sins of Jon Stewart.” Ted Koppel lamented, to Stewart’s face, that “a lot of television viewers—more, quite frankly, than I am comfortable with—get their news from . . . The Daily Show” (a dismayingly common observation that is not supported by the data; Daily Show viewers tend to be avid political junkies consuming myriad news sources).