Jon Stewart’s impact on the media and politics is undeniable. “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams has noted that, when he presents a news story “Jon’s always in the back of my mind,” and that Stewart’s “The Daily Show” “hold[s] people to account, for errors and sloppiness…it’s healthy.” Stewart is often seen in this light—as a comedic check on the excesses of hypocritical politicians and the press that enables them. Stewart is a channel for the frustration many feel against those in power, and a voice for those without.
But for all the praise Stewart has received, some of it justly deserved, we should also discuss the negative impacts of “The Daily Show,” and of comedy-news programs more generally. Although immensely entertaining, irresistibly likeable, and at times informative, Stewart is doing great damage to the public discourse in this country. He is, of course, not the main culprit of this. But his approach is indicative of the national mood and illustrative of how not to engage with those we disagree with. “The Daily Show” is at fault in two primary ways: its reliance on caricatures and its promotion of cynicism.
The Problem With Comedy News
“The Daily Show” is a comedy program. As Stewart himself has observed, if he cannot get his audience to laugh, he won’t stay on the air for very long. But it’s also a news program. Before Stewart took over “The Daily Show” in 1999 it mostly focused on pop culture. He transformed the show and in doing so introduced millions of young viewers to politics—viewers who might otherwise find traditional news sources boring and uninteresting. To many, this is good; the pleasure of humor opens the door to the at-times tedious process of political engagement. But how that door is opened matters quite a bit. The form a message takes cannot be disentangled from its effect on the listener.
Comedy by nature has difficulty with nuance. It often depends on broad brushes, hyperbole, and straw men. These are highly useful for producing a comedic effect—it magnifies and picks apart everyday items or experiences, so they no longer seem normal, but absurd. Comedy is a unique way of commenting on our condition, and its capacity to unveil everyday absurdities makes it ripe for commenting on the political and the social.
But this orientation also means comedy can only go so far. Comedy can delegitimize the opposition. The picture it paints is often absurd, so paints characters as caricatures. This isn’t necessary to comedic portrayals, and it is of course possible to involve nuance in the presentation. Louis C.K.’s portrayal of what it means to be an overweight (or even slightly overweight) woman in “So Did the Fat Lady” is a prime example of this. His portrayal should attune us again to comedy’s limits in this regard: the final scene is fit within a brilliantly comedic show, but one that has pushed the bounds of being “only” a comedy. His show “Louie” confounds these kinds of categories. The scene itself does not demand that the viewer laugh; the absurdity is bent away from the comedic and toward the tragic. Like all great tragedies, the central character can do everything “right”—Sarah Baker‘s character can have all the personality traits a man might look for in a partner—and yet she will still fail. The comedic absurdity of Louis avoiding a date with an overweight woman in the first half of the episode is transformed into a profound social commentary on the resulting tragedy of the situation.
Jon Stewart Relies Primarily On Political Straw Men
“The Daily Show” seems at first glance to also be a genre-bending show. It deals with substantive policy questions and reports on serious political events while maintaining a comedic outlook. But Stewart rarely leaves the comfortable zone of comedic absurdity. When he does, he ventures into righteous indignation (some of it justified), but usually after he has constructed a straw man through humor. Given Stewart’s admitted ideological leanings, the straw men constructed for liberals and conservatives are importantly different. The common trope on “The Daily Show” is that Democrats are spineless and incompetent, while Republicans are stupid and morally suspect. Stewart is frustrated and disappointed with Democrats, but he’s outraged by and disgusted with Republicans. The problem with the Democratic Party is one of means; the problem with the Republican Party is one of ends.
Politics by nature concerns itself with ambiguous phenomena. Reasonable disagreement is possible on most political issues, and there are rarely any “knock-down” arguments for one side or the other. Due to differing experiences, circumstances, information, intuitions, reasoning, and value structures, people come to disagree about politics, often forming justifiable yet incompatible perspectives.
But because of its heavy dependence on comedic straw men, “The Daily Show” rarely presents the best of each side. Any position can be poorly defended by the ignorant, the cynical, or the morally defunct, but oftentimes there are good, honest, reflective people who hold that position as well. The reason “The Daily Show” does not present the best of each should be obvious: it’s looking for a laugh. Those who are most easily shown to be absurd will be those most often profiled, and given Stewart’s ideological leanings, the Right will be castigated far more than the Left. This kind of presentation leaves the uninformed viewer with the sense that there are no good arguments on one side, and those who hold that position should be mocked, rather than engaged.
Good public discourse breaks through moral bubbles. Public discourse shares perspectives and reasoning, exposing us to those whom we disagree with. It allows us to better understand one another, and in listening to criticisms of our own positions, better understand ourselves. In private life we may choose to associate with people who are like us, but in a political society we must come together to adjudicate public matters. We must talk, to figure out how we are to govern ourselves. That we live among one another forces us to engage with people and perspectives that we might not have known existed. But the Balkanization of the media has limited our exposure to the best the other side has to offer. When Fox News presents President Obama as a socialist straw man, Stewart rightly criticizes it. But he adds to this trend. The comedic form of “The Daily Show” limits Stewart’s ability to contribute to a healthy public discourse, and often contributes to its decay.
It’s Wrong to Trick ‘The Daily Show’ Guests
But “The Daily Show” does not only select the most easily caricatured representatives of certain positions. It also carefully crafts its interviews to make certain people and groups look as foolish as possible. For example, The Washington Post recently published a story about how “The Daily Show” producers lied to Washington Redskins fans. While the fans had been explicitly told there would be no “cross-panel discussion” between them and Native American activists who oppose the football team’s name, in the middle of the interview the producer invited several activists into the room to confront them. This tactic was meant to shame and insult the Redskins fans, and regardless of how one feels about the controversy (in this case I side with Stewart), this is not how to have meaningful discussions.
In response to the controversy, Stewart did not air the portion of the interview where the activists confronted the fans, and said, “If we find out, in a piece, that someone was intentionally misled or if their comments were intentionally misrepresented, we do not air that piece.” But this example is not an isolated incident. “The Daily Show” often edits to present those it interviews in a bad light. Interviews that last only a couple of minutes on the air can go on for several hours in person. If the interviewer cannot elicit the kinds of responses he can easily mock, the interview will go on until he can get the right line. “The Daily Show” isn’t looking to truly hear from those it interviews, it’s looking for a laugh, and will do what it can to manufacture something worthy of mockery. Matt Slick has detailed his own experience being interviewed on the show, testifying to how answers are edited, taken out of context, and spliced together to obviously misrepresent them for comedic effect, while others have also complained about the show’s tactics.
Creating straw men is of course not unique to “The Daily Show.” But it is more essential to the show’s comedic enterprise than other forms of political news media. And, in some ways, it is more destructive. We cannot expect every story to present the best of each side. There is in almost every instance a better argument that can be made than the one we hear. But comedic straw men have a more insidious way of delegitimizing opposition than typical straw-men presentations. They degrade the opposition not only by twisting and misrepresenting their arguments, but also by ridiculing them. The arguments are not to be taken seriously, nor are those who hold such views. This damages the viewer’s ability to constructively engage with the other side. The typical audience of “Real Time with Bill Maher” is perhaps the best example of this impulse—it means for its audience revel in their own intelligence and moral perceptiveness while chuckling at those Neanderthals who hold another view.
Jon Stewart’s Invitation to Civic Apathy
“The Daily Show’s” selective presentations can also be found in its criticism of the media. Given the number of stations, shows, and personalities, it is no wonder Stewart has found a reservoir of material. It’s true that CNN can be so awful at times that it seems to border on performance art. These instances are rightly mocked, as are the ideologically dogmatic and uninformed assertions that fill the airwaves. But the compounding effect of these segments, taken in isolation of broader, more substantive public discussions, has a profoundly negative effect on the uninformed viewer. Coupled with Stewart’s penchant for highlighting politicians’ similarly foolish comments and claims, the average viewer is primed to cynicism and apathy. This sidelines the truly good work of many in the press and earnest politicians, since they do not fit within the broader narrative “The Daily Show” presents. This narrative—one that breeds cynicism and apathy—is the one most dangerous to our republic.
Cynicism is a uniquely damaging impulse for democratic societies. A republic or commonwealth defines a form of government that is a public affair, one organized for the common good. These systems of governance are distinguished from those that privilege the private interests of the rulers, andfrom those that claim to institute policies aimed at the common good but are created with little to no public involvement. As citizens—rather than subjects—members of a democratic society must remain actively engaged in political decisions for the regime to remain true to its political form. A cynical citizenry that lacks the public engagement needed to sustain truly democratic politics, can easily become apathetic and slip into becoming a democracy merely in structure, rather than substance.
This is not to say that participatory politics requires blind trust. Indeed, a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary for citizens to hold their representatives to account. But cynicism goes further than mere skepticism. It stymies the impulse to act, to believe that one can make a difference in politics. Cynicism is, at its core, an anti-political orientation. It leaves us confident that we know “what’s really going on,” and in our supposedly superior knowledge of the Sisyphean uselessness of politics, we are then left with political apathy. The confidence that comes with cynical surety is the cognitive opposite of skepticism; it interprets all new knowledge and experience within its own self-perpetuating narrative.
Cynicism Damages Democratic Forms of Government
Cynicism’s corrosive effect on public involvement has been extensively studied by the social sciences; it negatively impacts political participation, volunteer work, interpersonal trust, and increases levels of social suspicion and xenophobia. Its effect extends down from what is typically thought of as “public” and infiltrates into civil society, with distrust for politicians and the political process being strongly linked to diminished social capital.
The first major study of “The Daily Show’s” impact on cynicism indicated that viewers rated George W. Bush and John Kerry more negatively than non-viewers, and that they were also more cynical about the news media and the electoral system. Simultaneously, “Daily Show” viewers were more confident than non-viewers in their ability to understand American politics. A follow-up study also highlighted the ideological biases of the show’s humor, showing that viewers developed greater negative reactions towards Bush than Kerry. Later studies have also confirmed that exposure to “The Daily Show” generates “systemic cynicism,” and heightens viewer distrust of politicians and, in some cases, of the news media. Roderick P. Hart and Johanna Hartelius offer a persuasive analysis of the nature of cynicism, and firmly fit Stewart into the cynic tradition. As an example of Stewart’s tendency to purvey a cynical outlook, they cite his book, “America (the Book),” in which Stewart writes,
In every election, many people grapple with the nagging suspicion their vote doesn’t count. As a citizen and someone who is always right, it is respectively my duty and my pleasure to tell them they are wrong. In fact, our democracy depends on every citizen recognizing the value of his or her vote. And here is the value of that vote. In the most recent presidential election 105,360,260 people cast ballots. That means each person’s vote counted .000000949%. I defy you to find a mathematician who will tell you that number is less than or equal to zero. Okay, so we can agree, your vote counts. It counts .000000949%. Swish that around in your mouth for a while. How does it taste? Taste like freedom? ’Cause to me it tastes like jack-all squat.
Hart and Hatelius write that Stewart, “mock[s] the democratic ideal which assumes that voting is a worthwhile mode of participation,” and that he “suggests that citizens’ disillusionment with their own political impotence is more than justified given its negligible statistical significance.” Stewart narrows and delegitimizes the importance of the civic duty of voting by reducing it to mere calculation. His is a stance of ironic detachment, mirroring the increasingly ironic orientation of our post-9/11 culture.
Our Political Discontent Has Spawned Jon Stewart’s Success
Stewart’s success is, in many ways, a result of our own political discontent. The great forces of globalization, climate change, terrorism, technology, and demographic shifts have left many feeling powerless and isolated, without any real political agency. Irony is one potential response to this kind of experience. Cynicism consoles the ironist, commending him for his detachment by unveiling to him the foolishness of sincerity. Stewart unwittingly exploits and legitimizes this political orientation.
Whenever confronted about his influence and effect on political discourse, Stewart slips into the role of the mere comedian. As Hart and Hatelius note, while on “Crossfire” in 2004 “Stewart played the concerned citizen, a serious participant in the affairs of the day. But as soon as the hosts agreed to engage him on those terms, Stewart slipped away.” When pressed by Tucker Carlson, Stewart said, “It’s interesting to hear you talk about my responsibility,” pointing out, “You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making prank phone calls.” Turning the conversation around, Stewart admonished his hosts, saying, “You know…you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.”
Stewart deftly moves between citizen and comedian, using the former to rightly criticize the media when it fails, but then falling back on the latter when those same critiques are leveled against him. But whether he originally intended “The Daily Show” to be as politically influential and important as it is or not, the space it occupies demands that he himself take that responsibility seriously. Stewart has a profound impact on the way people interpret and understand politics, and on how they engage with those they disagree with. There is no reason to doubt that Stewart is genuinely worried about the state of public discourse. During his Rally to Restore Sanity, Stewart passionately declared, “We can have animus and not be enemies.” But his professed ends do not match his approach; his own show diminishes the possibility of the kind of discourse he advocates.
‘The Daily Show’ Should Be More Like ‘Last Week Tonight’
Correcting this is all easier said than done. As noted earlier, comedy has a difficult time dealing with nuance, and it can easily descend into straw men and caricatures. While I have focused in this article on “The Daily Show,” Stewart is by no means the worst offender—“The Colbert Report,” whose host takes on a caricatured right-wing persona, is even more problematic. And Stewart has done an excellent job in many segments striking a balance between his obligations as a citizen and a comedian.
In looking for ways to curb its excesses, “The Daily Show” could look to John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” which has transformed the approach of the comedy-news program. Rather than instilling apathy and cynicism, Oliver has found a way to encourage activism and political engagement. His segments, although typically less funny than Stewart’s, also involve fewer straw men and caricatures. Whether inspiring viewers to pay attention to net neutrality or reporting on false and misleading claims the Miss America pageant has made (claims our comatose media took for granted), Oliver usually devotes enough time and care to provide context to the story. Like Stewart, Oliver is a man of the Left, but so far his show has been more measured in its comedic approach. “Last Week Tonight” has consistently raised the bar. This is easier for Oliver for many reasons—he only airs one show a week, the structure and length of his show allows for longer, more in-depth segments, he’s on HBO rather than cable—but there is no reason other comedy-news programs cannot learn from it.
These criticisms of “The Daily Show” are not meant to simply be agonistic. Friends are not flatterers, and we should be friends to Stewart’s professed ends. At its best, “The Daily Show” offers us everything it is often praised for doing, and political satirists have a historically rich and vital role in maintaining free and responsive democratic politics. From what one can see, Stewart is an intelligent, thoughtful, and genuinely concerned citizen. “The Daily Show” may be having damaging public discourse—but there’s no reason to think that cannot change.