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Lighten up

How satire will make American politics relevant again
July 1, 2013

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. 

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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.

* * *

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).

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.

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.”

Schudson, who teaches at the Columbia Journalism School, does not advocate for one model of citizenship over another, as each of these eras was plagued by different threats to democratic health. But his reminder that rational, staid political discourse and participation are cultural constructions, not a fixed reality, allows us to consider some functional alternatives. 

To date, most quantitative studies of the impact of Colbert and The Daily Show have been rooted in rational political science, the un-fun Mugwump model of citizenship. We tend to ask respondents the old (sometimes 60-year-old) National Election Studies questions like, “Do you know how much of a majority is necessary for Congress to override a presidential veto?” (to measure civics knowledge), and, “Did you try to persuade someone whom to vote for?” and “Did you donate money?” (to measure political participation). Though there is evidence of a Stewart-Colbert effect when looking at these rational constructs, imagine what we will find if we begin to ask questions that better capture the spirit of what political humor really does for its viewers.

For example, when analyzing the impact of political satire, Jeffrey Jones, director of the George Foster Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia, suggests we should consider how viewers use political satire and parody to connect with politics and find meaning in political issues. Colbert and Stewart, Jones says, present political stories and issues in a way that is accessible and appealing, making viewers feel more connected to politics and empowered to think about it in an active and playful way.

The idea of measuring something as squishy as “play” or “connection” might send quantitative scholars running. However, several recent studies suggest that these outcomes are real and can be captured through innovations in measurement and analysis.

For a forthcoming article in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, my colleague Paul Brewer and I looked at how college students’ prior exposure to The Colbert Report affected their later exposure to traditional news stories. Participants read news stories about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and super PACs, a topic with which Colbert dealt extensively over a period of months on his program. They were randomly assigned either a story that mentioned Colbert’s super PAC, a news story about super PACs that did not mention Colbert, or a control. What we found, among other things, was that those students who were avid viewers of The Colbert Report in real life experienced dramatic increases in their sense of political efficacy when exposed to traditional news stories about super PACs (regardless of whether those stories mentioned Colbert). Their prior exposure to The Colbert Report armed them with information and awareness that made them feel more confident in their ability to navigate our complicated political world.

Another soon-to-be-released study that I conducted of college students’ reasons for watching (or avoiding) shows like The Daily Show and Colbert suggests that viewers’ uses for these programs do not fit neatly into an entertainment-or-information dichotomy. While some viewers reported watching The Daily Show and Colbert as “sources” of news, or as “sources” of laughter, a large proportion of respondents said they watched the shows to find the humor or joy in information they had obtained elsewhere. Similarly, a smaller contingent of respondents reported using The Daily Show and Colbert as sources of context to help them create meaning out of information they already had.

And in a forthcoming article in American Behavioral Scientist, my coauthors and I argue that as the possibilities for political entertainment expand, our age-old measures of the effects of political and media satire are ill-suited to capture the significance of what is going on around us. Consider the proliferation of viral videos and online political memes during the 2012 presidential campaign. The explosive popularity of memes like the Tumblr “Texts from Hillary,” or the candidate videos from “Bad Lip Reading,” speaks to the resonance of entertaining political content. These memes and videos do not necessarily make an explicit political argument, nor do they necessarily provide political information in the traditional sense. But they clearly matter to people. They provide a state of play where the audience can engage with public officials, political issues, or events, and not feel judged or inadequate in their ability to understand what’s going on.

And most important: This playful space isn’t a realm that exists separate from politics; for most people, this is politics.

Why are we afraid to tear down these boundaries?

Our reluctance to make political discourse more accessible stems, in part, from elitist notions of who should be allowed to sit at the political table. I remember watching Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher in 1999. As an appropriately trained political science graduate, I hated this show, almost to the point of finding it morally offensive. Who are these cracker jacks? What right do these comedians and B-list actors have to talk about abortion or gun control? As I read more of Jeffrey Jones’s work, though, in which he highlights Politically Incorrect as an example of inclusive, non-elite political discourse, I had to acknowledge that my contempt for Maher’s show probably said far more about me and my formal political-science training than it did about the show’s value. Actual democratic discourse requires that even the cracker jacks be invited to the table.

There are also Mugwumpian concerns among political communication scholars and political journalists about the vulnerability of the public: those poor, unprotected masses. The rather paternalistic fear is that if we allow political decision-making to become driven primarily by emotions, rather than careful thought and analysis, it will be far easier for the public to be manipulated by powerful interests and its own base instincts.

Leaders have always capitalized on emotions, of course. Today’s politicians and operatives routinely appeal to things like patriotism, fear–even “hope and change”–to mobilize and persuade voters.

On one level, this fear of emotional politics makes sense. History is full of extreme examples of what can go wrong when the masses are politically stirred through emotional appeals. Think Hitler, the KKK, the Salem witch trials.

But history is also full of examples of important victories born of citizens’ emotional responses to the political realities around them: civil rights, the American Revolution, suffrage. And the desire to “protect” the public by rationalizing and intellectualizing politics may strip it of the very things that draw people to politics in the first place: passion, meaning, and connection.

People act when they feel. If we want people to participate, we’ll need to allow, and even encourage, them to connect to politics not just through their heads, but also through their hearts.

And it probably isn’t possible to take emotion out of the political process, even if we wanted to. Is thinking, as opposed to feeling, ever truly rational? Cognitive psychology tells us that, while thoughts can lead to emotional responses, our emotional responses also shape how and what we think. The relationship between the rational and the emotional is complicated and reciprocal.

For example: You favor gun control. You learn that a candidate opposes gun control (thought/belief) so you then dislike that candidate (emotional response). What a nice, rational process. But this also works the other way: You favor gun control. You dislike a candidate–for whatever reason (emotional response)–so you then assume that the candidate opposes gun control (thought/belief). We are sneaky beasts, always on a mission to protect our own egos and the integrity of our belief systems. When emotions are strong, we generally don’t let inconvenient new information rock the boat. In sum, we all practice Stephen Colbert’s principle of truthiness: We want to feel right in our gut, without letting facts get in the way of what we know is true.

So in terms of receiving messages, the integrity of rational, information-based politics is suspect. But what about the message-production side of the equation? Sadly, the story is not much better. We live in a mediated political environment that is so thoroughly professionalized, with crafted talking points and poll-driven frames, there is little reason to assume that “information” is more truthful or less vulnerable to emotional manipulation than so-called entertainment.

When interest groups and campaigns actively construct reality, those things that we would like to think are true or fixed–dare I say, facts–are still run through a meat grinder. Political players select and frame issues and events, and journalists–bound by their own professional and systemic constraints (objectivity, the nonstop news cycle, etc.)–produce a second reconstruction of those issues and events. Then, upon reaching its destination (a.k.a. the good citizen), this information gets mashed through a cognitive funhouse fueled by self-serving and ego-protective biases like selective attention and selective perception.

So much for the Mugwumps.

Increasingly, scholars of political entertainment are challenging the notion that this process is worth protecting from the bastardizing influences of emotion, humor, and fun; especially if rationalizing politics means leaving normal people alienated from the language and rituals of politics. As Princeton political scientist Markus Prior’s work has consistently demonstrated, the more outlets and channels people have to choose from, the greater the opportunity for politically disinterested people to drop out of politics altogether, leaving them uninformed and at home on Election Day.

The key is in finding ways to show citizens that politics is not separate from their lives. Politics is people. People are social, emotional, and playful. We want to connect with our world and with each other, and enjoy doing it.

If scholars and journalists insist on treating political issues and public policy as part of a separate, elite sphere, devoid of passion and play, citizens will see those issues and policy debates as irrelevant and alienating. But if we empower people with ways to identify and create their own emotional connections to the substantive political issues of the day, we might find that they are not so quick to drop out.

Stewart and Colbert provide a functional model that should encourage further innovation in the exploration and discussion of politics and public affairs. Not as a substitute for the arduous, time-consuming work of investigative journalism, of course. If Stewart and Colbert have taught us anything, it’s that we cannot survive on a diet of ideological punditry, goat holograms, and fear-mongering (or what Stewart has referred to as “the country’s 24-hour, political-pundit, perpetual-panic conflictinator”). So, yes, we need the meat of great public-service journalism. But there is still room, and a need, for creative new formats that encourage people to connect and play with the substance of politics in accessible and meaningful ways.

We may find that by empowering citizens with entertaining ways to identify and cultivate their own meaningful connections to public policy, they will be less vulnerable to strategic emotional manipulation by campaigns and interest groups. Imagine that. What if the best way to rationalize the democratic process, protect citizens, and get more people to participate is by encouraging people to become passionate and playful?

I wonder if the Mugwumps were wrong about the liquor, too?

* * *

In preparation for this article, I called Lance Bennett to discuss his current thoughts on political satire as a response to the failings of postmodern news. He brought my attention to the most recent edition of News: The Politics of Illusion.

You can imagine my delight when I turned to the final chapter outlining proposals for citizens, and read: “Find Sources of Perspective such as Political Comedy.”

Dannagal G. Young is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware and a research fellow at the university’s Center for Political Communication. She is also a professional improvisational comedian with ComedySportz in Philadelphia.