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).
This argument reflects a broader strain of media criticism that sees television—and entertainment television in particular—as unsuitable for the treatment of serious political issues. Writing in 1985, Neil Postman went so far as to claim that television, as a medium, had “devastated political discourse” through its focus on diversion over substance and artifice over truth. (Imagine what Postman, who died in 2003, would have said when Stewart interviewed President Obama on his show in 2012 and asked him, “How many times a week does Biden show up in a wet bathing suit to a meeting?”)
But the argument misunderstands our relationship with the mediated political world, and underestimates citizens. Not only is political satire not “devastating” to political discourse, it actually encourages and models promising new ways for people to connect with politics.
Consider the 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall, organized and hosted by Stewart and Colbert. This “Million Moderate March” mobilized more than 250,000 fans of the shows around a communal need for political connection, participation—and fun.
Or Stewart’s interviews with GOP officials, in which he asks his guests to explain their point of view, and then to explain “why he is wrong” on a particular issue, thereby shunning the he said-she said objectivity trap of typical pundit shows in favor of an actual exchange of ideas.
Or Colbert’s launching of the Colbert Super Fun Pack, “A Do it Yourself Super PAC kit that you can order. All you need is a burning desire for civic engagement and $99.” The limited edition packages (only 1,000 were distributed) included the legal documents necessary to file for a super PAC, a how-to-file instruction manual, a host of super pac-related swag, a copy of The Forbes 400 list of the richest people in America, and a series of seemingly arbitrary objects that, once properly decoded as clues, led to an actual treasure. (How fun is that?)
The popularity of Stewart and Colbert in our cultural zeitgeist is not accidental. A growing number of scholars see the shows’ resonance as an indication of the need for solutions to the problems plaguing contemporary politics and news.
As the line between journalism and entertainment blurred and profit pressures mounted, political coverage became even more about personalities and ginned-up drama instead of substantive issues. Now, on the rare occasions when an actual policy debate does break out, it is left to a handful of polarized pundits who argue in talking points and generalities that go largely unchallenged by the journalists serving as referees. All this leaves normal citizens cynical and alienated.
As the scholar Geoffrey Baym has shown, while the traditional news business was breaking down, cable and the Internet were creating new platforms that allowed for programming experimentation. Suddenly, satirists like Jon Stewart had the freedom (afforded by basic cable) and the inspiration (afforded by journalism’s devolution) to create an innovative response to the state of the news industry.