Inside Jokes

A new take on news and late-night comedy, and a parsing of journalistic courage

AAfter White House-bound Bill Clinton donned shades and played the sax on The Arsenio Hall Show in June 1992, a small intellectual industry emerged to examine the relationship between entertainment and politics. Media watchdogs began counting jokes on Leno and Letterman to make sure Republicans and Democrats were evenly roasted, while campaign managers hurried to book their candidates for “humanizing” interviews on the laugh circuit. Whether any of this mattered to public opinion was unclear, until a Pew Research Center survey published in early 2000 found that young people received more political campaign information from late-night comedy than did older or better-informed people. Youngsters garnered less information from traditional news sources than did any other group. Academics and journalists alike were intrigued and often alarmed at these findings — more so after Pew’s 2004 follow-up found still fewer young people citing newspapers and network television as information sources and still more citing late-night comedy. Commentators leapt to the conclusion that young people were abandoning journalism for comedy to get political news.

That’s a little hasty, according to a new study by Dannagal Young and Russell Tisinger, doctoral candidates at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. Reanalyzing the Pew data in the summer issue of the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, they find that young people who turn to late-night comedy for political information watch more traditional national network news — not less — than peers who abstain from watching late-night comedy. One reason may be that satirical programs such as The Daily Show function like editorial cartoons in a newspaper; getting the jokes requires context and prior knowledge. The scholars say their data support two current notions about entertainment and politics: one, that comedy serves as a “‘gateway’ to consumption of traditional news,” and two, that “individuals use diverse forms of content to create political understanding.” Arguments will continue on whether joking about politics is good or bad for us, but at least for now, staying up late is no sign of illness for the body politic.


“What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk?” The Cowardly Lion, musing in The Wizard of Oz, had one explanation: “Courage!” It’s the same quality that underpins exceptional journalism in the twenty-first century, according to the former Time magazine essayist Lance Morrow, one of over fifty journalists who reflect on courage in this summer’s Nieman Reports. Two-thirds of the accounts come from international correspondents facing physical danger while reporting on war, crime, and repressive regimes. The remaining pages look at domestic journalists taking risks in reporting despite the potential loss of friends, contacts, and income. Courage takes many forms. As the University of Missouri journalism professor Geneva Overholser writes, it includes “the courage to admit mistakes, acknowledge doubts, hold ourselves accountable, make our work transparent.”

In the June issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication, another Annenberg/Penn graduate student, Matt Carlson, took up the topic of journalistic courage in the tragic cases of the NBC reporter David Bloom and the Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. Looking at both print and TV coverage of their deaths in Iraq in 2003, Carlson finds both men represented as brave witnesses to the war, thereby serving both their country and the highest aspirations of journalism. In representing Kelly, however, the media miscast him in a revealing way — as a reporter rather than a columnist, a neutral “witness” rather than an advocate. They rarely noted (Good Morning America and The Boston Globe were exceptions) Kelly’s outspoken support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. When journalists discuss journalistic courage, they are most comfortable recognizing it in objective witness, not in the variety of other honest stances journalists legitimately take.

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Michael Schudson & Tony Dokoupil write The Research Report for CJR.