In fact, earlier this year, Stewart lambasted the suggestion by Jeff Zucker, the newly minted president of CNN Worldwide, that “we need to broaden [the] definition of what news is.” Stewart, impersonating Zucker in an exaggerated Hollywood Executive voice, proclaimed, “No longer will news be defined as things that are or have happened in the world. For instance, I love that show CSI . . . why can’t that be news? I love brunch, who doesn’t love brunch? That’s news!” Stewart then presented a montage of CNN’s latest journalistic contributions: “superfluous technology,” like goat holograms and virtual floating rockets; a crime-scene investigator walking the viewer through a dramatic re-enactment of convicted murderer Jodi Arias’s brutal stabbing of Travis Alexander, complete with a dummy face-down in a pool of fake blood.
What do the numbers say?
As cultural scholars and pundits on both sides of this debate describe the ways in which satire and irony might help transform democracy, quantitative social scientists like me, handcuffed by the constraints of empiricism, set out to test the various claims. Through survey research and controlled experiments, humor scholars have spent more than a decade studying how citizens—undergrads and normal people—perceive, process, and are affected by political satire.
The results would make Neil Postman cringe. Fans of political satire consistently exhibit exceptionally healthy democratic characteristics compared to non-viewers: People who watch Stewart and Colbert participate in politics more; they vote more; they discuss politics with friends and family more; they watch cable news more; they get news online more; they listen to NPR more; and—this is a good one—they have more confidence in their ability to understand and participate in political life. And studies consistently indicate that exposure to political satire increases knowledge of current events, leads to further information-seeking on related topics, and increases viewer interest in and attention paid to politics and news.
The one documented effect of political satire that has raised some eyebrows is a negative relationship between exposure to The Daily Show and Colbert and trust in the government. Avid consumers of political satire have lower trust in the government, regardless of who is in office. While the authors of the initial study that identified this relationship, Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan Morris, political scientists at East Carolina University, described it as a “detrimental effect,” many scholars have since pointed out that low political trust combined with high knowledge and efficacy likely constitutes a desirable democratic concoction.
After all, wouldn’t someone with low trust in government but extensive political knowledge and confidence in her ability to participate effectively, be skeptical, passionate, and engaged? Probably.
The healthy citizen
In exploring how these shows affect democracy, researchers like me have had to reconsider what healthy democratic citizenship ought to look like. Does citizenship have to involve a certain kind of policy-based knowledge or town-hall-meeting attendance? Do citizens have to watch traditional news and treat politics with a kind of due reverence? Perhaps there are viable models of citizenship that emphasize skepticism, playfulness, passion, and an emotional connection to the political process—ways of engaging with politics that aren’t so serious, or difficult.
American definitions of citizenship have evolved. In his 1998 book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, sociologist Michael Schudson documents the changing norms surrounding American citizenship. He points to the liquor-fueled celebrations of the 1700s and the raucous, party-based participatory culture of the 1800s. He reminds us that today’s rational model of citizenship—in which citizens are expected to become policy experts and dispassionate political participants—has not always been with us, but rather is an outgrowth of the Progressive movement of the 1890s. Suspicious of the emotional whims of the public, and concerned about the voters’ vulnerability to the manipulation of powerful political parties, Mugwump progressives sought to protect the political process from these dubious forces. Through changes in the ballot system, and an increasing emphasis on literacy over festival, the “Protestant Reformation” of American politics took place.
Translation: They sucked the fun out.
As Schudson colorfully describes, “Mugwump reformers were not keen on wild and woolly party democracy with its elevation of the election to an extraordinary collective carnivalesque ritual. Carnival was not their style.”