The Role and Impact of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Taking Satire Seriously On A "Daily Show" Basis

By Matthew E. Popkin
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 1/12 |
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Abstract

Throughout the past decade, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has expanded its depth of analysis and impacted the political process and national discourse in multiple ways. It has established itself as a source of legitimate critical examination of American political and media , and of current events. Armed with sarcasm, satire, and silliness, The Daily Show has worked to break through the absurdity of the American political system and media by promoting responsibility, accountability, and reasonable discourse.

This paper analyzes the show’s major aspects that have developed over the course of the program’s existence which serve as checks on the democratic process. The paper first looks broadly at the news media, critiquing the networks generally and then focusing on the three major cable news networks. Specific critiques of the roles and responsibilities of the news media follow. Analysis shifts to The Daily Show interviews and the discourse that they foster. The last major section examines the show’s ability to reveal the hypocrisy and lack of transparency of the political process.

In short, there are three major checks that the show seeks to provide: a check on the news media; a check on accountability; and a check on the hypocrisy of the process. This paper utilizes the available online primary sources of Daily Show video clips to demonstrate the value of the program, integrating video segments to convey an overarching theme of satirical, yet serious, media criticism. The conclusion connects all the sections together, evaluating the impact that The Daily Show has had on the political and media process and how Stewart and The Daily Show team have become an important part of the American democratic system.

Since its beginnings in 1999, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has been a unique and evolving comedy program. The show utilizes satire, hyperbole, and fake news to critique prominent current events or political issues. There are three main components to The Daily Show. Host Jon Stewart typically opens the program with a segment about the top stories of the day. A short segment follows with a fake political correspondent or commentator exaggerating the issue or mocking the absurdity of a situation. The show concludes with a guest interview either for promotion of a recent work or for discussion on a current political issue.

Due to its blended nature as both a comedy and news show, The Daily Show has been able to ignore both news media and comedy conventions, occupying a space that would make most news shows wince and journalists hesitate. Many scholars and media critics debate whether the show is fake news or reliable journalism. Although there are certainly segments that are obviously fake news, the vast majority of The Daily Show is far from the realm of fake news, but also quite distinct from hard news and journalism. There is a significant different between a fake news program and a satirical news program. Satire is a “discourse of inquiry” that attempts to unravel the morality of issues being discussed.1 Fake news is simply made up and has no basis in fact. Satirical news, though, puts a spin on the actual news. Stewart and the other writers of the show rarely invent stories. Instead, they construct episodes around sound bytes and video clips from actual stories on the major news networks.

As a program on Comedy Central, The Daily Show also has the leeway to be immature and vulgar at times, and Stewart often uses the comedy network as a shield from criticism of his own journalistic “responsibility,” while strongly condemning others. In fact, some contend that Stewart’s refusal to abide by traditional journalistic conventions signals a stark contrast with the recent “mutual embrace between press and .”2 The following analysis, however, will sidestep both the fake news and journalistic integrity debate and will focus on the value of the satirical news aspect of the show.

As the show has developed, The Daily Show’s criticism has become more focused on specific issues, and segments have grown from short comedy stints into lengthy and complex critiques. The program distinguishes itself from other late night programs by concentrating primarily on policy issues as opposed to politics.3 Even the guest interviews have become a way in which to draw attention to and frame significant moral, social, and political debates.

The Daily Show has evolved into a social, political, and media satirical commentary show that is becoming a “check” on the accountability of the political process and major news networks. The media often are thought of as a check on the government. Stewart thus provides vital oversight of the media and democratic process: he is holding politicians and the media responsible for their words and actions, alerting people to their hypocrisy and irrationality.

Throughout the past decade, the show has expanded in depth and has impacted the political process and national discourse in multiple ways. It has become a part of American political culture. Despite its comedic and satirical approach, The Daily Show should not be overlooked, as it is a rigorous critical examination of current events and politics.

This paper will analyze and discuss the major aspects of the show that have developed over the course of the program’s existence to serve as checks on democratic process. It will first look broadly at the general news media critiques that are offered and then focus on the three major cable news networks. Specific critiques of the role and responsibility of the news media will follow. Analysis will shift to The Daily Show interviews and the discourse that the interviews encourage. Furthermore, the show’s ability to reveal hypocrisy contributes to the transparency of the political process. In short, there are three major levels of checks that the show seeks to serve: checks on the accountability of the news media, political process, and the individual. I conclude by evaluating the impact that The Daily Show has had on the media and political process and how Stewart and The Daily Show team have become an integral part of the American democratic system.

General Media Commentary

One of the most valuable aspects of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is the show’s critique of the most prominent 24-hour news networks. The primary responsibility of these major news networks, including but not limited to CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, is to inform their audiences of the day’s current events locally, nationally, and internationally. This section analyzes the show’s critique of the major news networks as a whole and the show’s scrutiny of the individual news networks – CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.

Some of the show’s most common critiques have involved evaluating what the media consider newsworthy. There are certain events, such as , wars, protests, and scandals, which are obvious stories - others not so much. Take, for instance, the death of model and actress Anna Nicole Smith. The cable news networks sensationalized her death in a ridiculous fashion, and Stewart put it in perspective: “The media unleashed a full scale coverage orgy with CNN, at one point, going 90 minutes without a commercial making the death of Anna Nicole Smith a more significant news event than a State of the Union address and slightly less than 9/11.”4 Two years later, when Michael Jackson died, the news networks shifted immediately from their coverage of Governor Mark Sanford’s sex scandal, to days of coverage on Michael Jackson’s unexpected death. In jest of Sanford having given another interview when all press attention had abruptly left him alone, Stewart exclaims incredulously, “You gave another interview? God killed Michael Jackson to save your ass! And you gave another interview?”5

During the summer of 2010, the show also mocked the media’s attention on Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Due to the lack of media access, Stewart states, “This wedding is setting a new record for the most amount of media gaining the least amount of information.”6 The Daily Show points out the excessive amount of time that the media devote to a story they know nothing about and that is not all that important in the grand scheme of things. Instead of looking into more significant issues going on in the political landscape, the media spent much of the day making predictions or guesses as to what would be occurring during the Clinton wedding. Moreover, Stewart comments on the immense focus given to the cost of the wedding, insinuating that the media could be better serving the public: “You know you could criticize the media for spending more time and attention on Chelsea Clinton’s wedding than on the WikiLeaks Afghanistan story, the 9/11 responders insurance funding vote, and how tax cuts affect the deficit combined, but the fact is, when they do apply their resources, their ability to gather resources is truly awesome.”7

Improper News Coverage

In 2006, a controversy arose because of allegations against Duke University lacrosse players. The Daily Show exposed the poor handling of the issue by multiple networks:8

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Headlines - Duke Lacrosse Rape Allegations

In the video segment, Stewart focuses not on the actual details of the rape allegations, but on the manner in which the media cover the story. It would not be appropriate for a comedy show to make light of the serious and sensitive topic of rape allegations. Instead, Stewart mocks the actual news networks and their news commentary shows in their reporting and handling of the issue. The transition from “Fox and Friends’ weather report to the sports report illustrates an obviously ridiculous transition from a light topic and banter to a serious topic, and Stewart expresses his dismay that the show poorly handled the sensitive subject. Although it was likely that the awkward transition was unintentional, greater care should be given to issues that deal with more serious topics.

On the other hand, Stewart criticizes the script for the Nancy Grace segment for intentionally using sports statistics as an attempt at comedic relief, which just results in an inappropriate and ridiculous report by a professional news commentary show. Stewart sums up Nancy Grace’s attempted comedic approach to the situation quite bluntly: “It’s funny because it’s the worst possible thing you could have done.”9 Stewart, though, takes a more appropriate approach to the issue via his introduction of the story, and even his satirical criticism is not distasteful or diminishing in any regard. There is a crucial difference between making light of the actual situation and making light of the absurdity of the news coverage. The consideration exhibited by The Daily Show, a Comedy Central program, contrasted with the lack thereof by the supposedly serious news programs on major news networks, reflects quite poorly on the latter.

Another dimension of The Daily Show’s commentary touches on the networks’ lack of substance when trying to fill 24 hours of news. The lack of substance or even an informative response demonstrated in the rape allegations case by the Fox, CNN, and MSNBC reporters, exemplifies the uselessness of much of the coverage. The Daily Show’s regular criticism of the 24-hour networks for their lack of substance due to the sheer amount of airtime that the networks have to fill has become a growing theme.

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