Like most self-respecting liberals, I enjoy The Daily Show. In my opinion, the show was at its best during the eight torturous (literally) years of the Bush administration when Jon Stewart and his writers had a very clear enemy to rip apart on a weekly basis. And while the show still has some wonderful moments (thanks in large part to the hilarious “correspondents,”) The Daily Show has definitely had a hard time finding its comedic voice ever since the election of Barack Obama.
The show has always mocked Democrats as well as Republicans, which is only fair considering the abysmal state of the Democratic Party, but in their haste to balance the funny, the writers are demoralizing their own base.
In 2006, Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris, two East Carolina University assistant professors, compared student reaction to coverage of the 2004 presidential race by CBS News and by The Daily Show. They concluded that Stewart show watchers are more cynical about candidates, campaigns, the electoral system and the news media than are network news viewers. The Washington Post declared that this was very bad news. Columnist Richard Morin mused if Stewart was the “enemy of democracy.”
“This is not funny: Jon Stewart and his hit Comedy Central cable show may be poisoning democracy…. Young people who watch Stewart’s faux news program “The Daily Show” develop cynical views about politics and politicians that could lead them to just say no to voting.”
I think cynicism is actually a good thing. The world is fucked up. Capitalism is broken. There needs to be radical change. If young people are depressed, that means they’re paying attention to the injustices in societies. However, The Daily Show simultaneously injects a certain degree of cynicism about politics and then does the same thing with the world of activism and protest. In its quest to be comically balanced i.e. mock the right and the left, it leaves its audience thinking, “Well, then what’s the point in doing anything?” Young liberals don’t want to be Neo-cons, but they also don’t want to be the protester Jon Stewart calls a “jackass.”
Take this recent example from The Daily Show’s coverage of the G20 protests:
Stewart always makes me smile even when he’s making bad cum jokes, but I found myself cringing at the rest of the G20 coverage. Sorry, Jon, plugging one’s ears doesn’t block the damage from a sound cannon. The BBC has reported that a long range acoustic device (LRAD) cranked to 150 decibels “is the aural equivalent to standing 30m away from a roaring jet engine and can cause major hearing damage if misused.”
So why does any of this matter? In July, an online poll conducted by Time magazine revealed Jon Stewart beat out Katie Couric, Brian Williams, and Charlie Gibson for the title of “America’s most trusted newscaster.” Quite simply: young people look to Stewart to tell them what to feel, and not necessarily what to think. They already know the news. That’s how they get the jokes, but they need to know the cool way to feel.
Stewart is the awesome, funny guy at the party. I can’t tell you how many times people have quoted Daily Show jokes to me, trying to pass them off as their original thoughts. That’s an indication of how prevalent The Daily Show’s bits are in liberal vernacular. Whether he likes it or not, Stewart is a role model, and in every show he teaches valuable lessons to his audience.
Those lessons matter now more than ever. America is experiencing a dangerous combination of an oppressive police state and culture of apathy where kids are more concerned with looking cool than achieving social justice. As a result, most people are too scared or lazy to exercise their freedom of speech, and so only the truly brave, young, foolish, and crazy are willing to face off with, say, the entire Pittsburgh police department. So yes, there is the occasional protester dressed as a cow. There are overeager anarchists hurling bricks at pet stores.
But is there any wonder why these things lack organization? Few people want to risk the time and energy just to lose the battle and be called a jackass on television. That’s the opposite of what a cool American is supposed to do. A cool American acts detached, nonchalant, and bored. It’s not cool to protest in America. It’s not cool to be overwhelmed by anger and passion, so much so that you’re willing to risk humiliation at the hands of police officers. It’s a pain in the ass to get arrested and go to jail, and spend hours and hours waiting to get released. Above all, it’s scary. That’s why I think all activists (from all political parties) should be applauded even if they wear dumb costumes.
Humor is the tool of the oppressed. Comedy only works if it’s the serfs making fun of the king. Otherwise, the king just looks like an asshole making fun of poor people. This is the secondary reason FOX’s “The 1/2 Hour News Hour” never lasted. In addition to having truly terrible writing, the show premiered during the Bush years. Republicans were in control of the country back then. Therefore, it was the king mocking the serfs, and it just looked juvenile and mean. It was like someone set up a tripod and camera in some frat boy’s living room and said, “Let her rip, fellas.”
The Daily Show has been criticized in the past for royally botching its coverage of stories. There was the famous Stewart interview with Blackwater’s Jeremy Scahill, during which it became painfully clear Stewart and his writers had either not read Scahill’s book, or failed to understand its significance. (To his credit, Stewart later apologized for dropping the ball.)
Then there’s ACORN. Rather than thoughtfully examining the right-wing smear machine behind the recent ACORN attacks, The Daily Show hopped on the easy mainstream bandwagon and repeated much of the talking points highlighted on FOX News. The writers and Stewart failed to examine the motives of John O’Keefe, the creator of the ACORN videos, or the Republican Party, including Karl Rove, which has been working to destroy ACORN for years.
The Daily Show didn’t mention that those ACORN employees were promptly fired, and that the paper work was red-flagged immediately because it was obviously highly suspicious. Stewart never mentioned that O’Keefe was tossed out of many ACORN offices (in some cases the cops were called on him) before he found the unscrupulous employees. Rather, Stewart argues ACORN hasn’t been investigated enough, a truly laughable (not in the good way) claim considering the obsessive FOX coverage combined with underreporting of bigger scandal-ridden companies like Blackwater, Goldman Sachs, DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, etc. (Watch the ACORN coverage below).
The Daily Show and Jon Stewart have repeatedly dismissed claims that young people watch the comedy program to learn the news, and I’m inclined to agree with them. The show isn’t really enjoyable unless you follow the news, and know what’s been going on. Otherwise, the jokes border on the esoteric. In fact, The Daily Show audience is already extremely well-informed. A survey conducted by the Pew Center in 2007 revealed that respondents who seemed to know the most about what’s going on in the political world — who were able to identify major public figures, for example — were likely to be viewers of fake news programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Those who knew the least watched network morning news programs, FOX News, or local television news.
What worries me is not the politics The Daily Show teaches, but the lessons in cynicism. An audience member may know about Blackwater, and the ACORN witch-hunt, and the ideologies behind the G-20 protests, but the lesson they learn from The Daily Show is that private mercenaries aren’t a big deal, ACORN is the result of a bunch of shady black people doing illegal things, and all protesters are little scatterbrained wieners who are more bored than morally outraged.
Stewart and The Daily Show were wonderful when the enemy was obvious. The writing was great, the jokes cutting, and the show seemed to have a lot more heart back then. Now, in making fun of everyone, the show fails to stand for anything. It’s still funny, but comedy works at a higher level when it’s based on conviction.
Link to this article:
– Allison Kilkenny