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Is America a Joke? Researcher Examines The Daily Show’s Impact on Political Culture

Daily Show host Jon Stewart is the most trusted man in America.  Or at least as Chris Smith writes in a cover story at this week’s New York magazine, in today’s fragmented media culture, he is the most trusted man among his devoted following of 2 million nightly viewers.

But as Smith also recounts, Jon Stewart’s influence extends far beyond the size of his direct audience. “Jon has chronicled the death of shame in politics and journalism,” NBC anchor Brian Williams tells Smith. “Many of us on this side of the journalism tracks often wish we were on Jon’s side.  I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintop.  He’s a necessary branch of government.”

Stewart’s Daily Show, along with The Colbert Report, and traditional network programs such as NBC’s Saturday Night Live, the Tonight Show, CBS’s Late Night, and even The View, hold an ever increasing influence over political culture and public perceptions. Parodies, satirical segments, and appearances by political figures are the subject of next day conversations, covered as news stories by journalists, among the most viewed, forwarded and recommended content online, and a central part of campaign strategy.

Yet what exactly are the impacts related to this new genre of political entertainment? Why do political figures risk ridicule or miscues by appearing on the Daily Show, SNL, or The View? How does parody and satire at The Daily Show or The Colbert Report influence the agenda and framing of news coverage and political discourse? Are these programs a distraction to audiences or a rich resource for critical analysis and learning about politics?

For insight on these questions, I interviewed last week Lauren Feldman, a colleague in the School of Communication at American University and a leading scholar examining the nature and impacts of The Daily Show and other forms of political entertainment.  In part 1 of the interview posted today, Feldman discusses the relationship between these programs and political strategy, along with the impact on news coverage and the framing of political debates.–Matthew Nisbet

Why do politicians and public figures go on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, or Saturday Night Live? How might an appearance influence their public evaluations?

Appearances on late-night comedy programs have become an essential part of campaign strategy and, increasingly, political strategy more generally. This is, in large part, due to the fragmentation, or breaking up, of the mass media audience. It is extremely easy for people to tune out news and politics, if they so desire, and opt for purely entertainment programming. Many politicians have accepted this reality of our current media environment, reaching out to apolitical audiences by appearing as interview guests on entertainment talk shows – including late-night comedy programs.

While once the domain of candidates running for office, when President Obama appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in March 2009 to promote his economic recovery plan, he became the first sitting president ever to be interviewed on a comedy show.

In addition to providing politicians with access to audiences that they might not be able to reach otherwise, late-night comedy programs allow politicians to project their non-political persona, make themselves seem more human, and convey that they care about and are in touch with the average citizen.  In particular, appearances on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Saturday Night Live help politicians to assert their pop culture credibility and demonstrate that they have a sense of humor.

Research has found that political candidates who appear on comedy and other entertainment talk shows enjoy an increase in favorability, particularly among audience members who have less strongly formed opinions. There are risks to these appearances, however. Politicians can come off as pandering.

President Obama has opened himself to criticism for appearing on late-night comedy programs – and most recently, daytime’s The View. These appearances were criticized as un-presidential, inappropriate, and evidence of misplaced priorities. However, what we see more and more is that politician interviews on comedy and other entertainment programs are, in fact, politically substantive and provide an important opportunity to reach out to niche audiences in our fragmented media environment.

Do The Daily Show and other late night comedy programs influence mainstream news coverage? If so, in what ways?

Yes, and there are several ways in which this is happening, all of which highlight the increasingly fluid line between news and entertainment. Perhaps most obviously, mainstream news outlets report on politicians’ appearances on late-night comedy programs, airing clips of and offering commentary about the interviews. This began in earnest during the 1992 presidential race, when late-night comedy programs and entertainment talk shows first played a central role in campaigning, and has only increased in recent election cycles. In some high profile instances, politicians have broken major news on late-night programs, virtually requiring mainstream outlets to cover them.

For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, and Fred Thompson all announced their intentions to run for office on late-night comedy programs. Recognizing the growing importance of late-night comedy to the political landscape, many traditional news programs now even include bits from comedy shows as regular features of their broadcasts – for example, on ABC’s This Week, the Sunday “Funnies” provides a round-up of the week’s best late-night political comedy.

Ultimately, The Daily Show,The Colbert Report, SNL, and other late-night comedy programs have become part of mainstream political discourse. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert satirize what mainstream news outlets are saying, and then the mainstream outlets, in turn, report on the comedians’ critiques. In some cases, mainstream news personalities have directly engaged with Stewart and Colbert, responding to their critiques by appearing on the program (think Bill O’Reilly on The Colbert Report and CNBC’s Jim Kramer on The Daily Show).

I published a study in 2007, which examined what mainstream journalists were saying about The Daily Show.  One of my key conclusions was that The Daily Show – with its incisive, straight-shooting critique of media and politics – was forcing some journalists to reconsider traditional journalistic norms like balance and detachment, which too often serve to obfuscate rather than reveal the truth.

So, perhaps one of the most important ways that The Daily Show, in particular, is influencing mainstream news coverage is by exposing its limitations and encouraging journalists to break from conventional norms – or at least to think more expansively about what journalism should look like today.

Does the Daily Show have the power to challenge the preferred frame promoted by political leaders on an issue?  For example, during the Bush years, I found interesting how the Daily Show was often in front of mainstream news coverage in challenging the Administrations claims about the Iraq War and about stem cell research.

The Daily Show does an exceptional job of holding politicians and the news media accountable. Because The Daily Show is not bound by the conventions of journalism – namely, the need to appear objective – it can say things that traditional journalists cannot or will not. As a result, The Daily Show is able to challenge elite frames and offer alternative framing of issues. As you pointed out, The Daily Show did this particularly effectively during the lead up to and early years of the Iraq War.

Through its segments on “Mess O’Potamia,” for example, The Daily Show brought attention to the insurgency and civil war in Iraq before the mainstream news media did. The Daily Show was also one of the first outlets to report on the connection between Dick Cheney and Halliburton.

Some of the best moments on The Daily Show are when it uses news pastiche to expose hypocrisy and cut through spin – in other words, juxtaposing news footage of political and media elites saying one thing at one point in time and then contradicting themselves at a later date.

One of the most popular examples of this (the clip has received over 4 million views on Comedy Central’s website) aired just after Sarah Palin was announced as the 2008 Republican Vice Presidential nominee and highlights the double standard of sexism as applied to Palin versus Hillary Clinton. 

–Interview with Lauren Feldman, American University

What do readers think? Do you agree that The Daily Show and other forms of political entertainment have an increasing influence? Do parodies and satire serve an important accountability function, a function increasingly missing from traditional news coverage and commentary?

Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

Also, below you can watch a Big Think interview from 2009, in which Daily Show executive producer Josh Lieb describes life in the program’s writers’ room. Transcript follows.

Question: How did the Daily Show adapt to the transition from Obama to Bush?

Josh Lieb: Political comedy is just as easy now as it was during the Bush years. It is still – it’s a different cast of characters, but they’ve got all the same foibles. Personally, speaking for myself, I certainly like and trust our President now more than I did our previous one, but he makes plenty of goofs. I certainly don’t approve of everything he does and there’s a cast of characters in Washington right now that are absolutely as hilarious as anyone who was there during the Bush years.

Question: How do you keep the show fresh?

Josh Lieb: We’re always looking to keep it fresh. And that’s not so much because we are scared we’re going to lose the audience, it’s more we don’t want to lose our own interest. You can do the show four days a week, however many weeks a year; you can get bored by doing it. So, we have to keep making it exciting for ourselves. So, there’s absolutely, there is that and then its like, let’s try something new even though it might hard, and there’s also – it’s a group of very competitive funny people and we like to make each other laugh. So, we know what a standard show could be and we are always trying to break out of that just so we can impress each other.

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Question: Did you miss the collaborative process of TV writing while doing your book?

Josh Lieb: Absolutely not. No. The hardest part for me in a work environment is collaboration. That is just a struggle that I’ve always had. And I love my coworkers and I love bouncing ideas around with them, but I really enjoyed pure writing. Just sitting and writing by myself. And every show is different. This is the most collaborative environment I’ve ever been in. I used to write another TV show called News Radio where it was very different. We didn’t have any sort of big table or anything where ideas were bounced around. You’d come with a script idea and you’d go off and write it and you’d hand it to the next guy up the food chain and he would re-write it. It was as pure a writing experience as you can get in the TV world.

Question: What is the difference between writing for the Simpsons and The Daily Show?

Josh Lieb: The main difference between the two is just the immediacy. The Daily Show, the New Hits, and we get to take care of it that night. The Simpson’s is such a strange animal, and a wonderful animal, but a strange one. You would be writing for something that wouldn’t air for nine months to a year. And still people would go, wow, how did you get that reference so quickly and frequently it would seem like the show was fresh. I enjoyed the Simpson’s, but I like the immediacy of the Daily Show more. It’s frustrating to write something and then not see the finished product for a year. With the Daily Show, it’s like you are really putting on a show. You know, I’m Mickey Rooney, I’m writing a script, and that night it goes live. And if it’s terrible, we’ll do another show tomorrow night.

Question: How do you manage comedy writers?

Josh Lieb: Oh absolutely. We’re not so different from everybody else. It’s not that I’m particularly funny in this interview anyway; we don’t always have to be funny. How’s that. I think we can be just as adequate at managing people as others can. And it’s all management skills that go into our wheelhouse. It’s okay, I read a script, and this isn’t funny. This is what you need to do. Boop, boop, boop. If I were an accountant I would be able to point out where the number didn’t add up. If I’m watching a montage and this doesn’t go together quite right, as someone who is a comedy professional, I can point out what is going to work better.

Question: Are there other challenges in managing creative people? Josh Lieb: No. I’ll tell you what; everyone at the show is so nice and so shockingly competent that it’s not a real problem. I’ve been in situations where there have been people who were difficult, or just people you didn’t want to be around and people you had to manage more heavily. There’s nothing like that there. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s such a fast-moving machine. Anyone who acts as any sort of sand in the gears gets spit out pretty quickly.


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