May 8, 2008

Journalism, Satire or Just Laughs? "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Examined

A Focus on Satire

Beyond what gets covered, perhaps a more precise sense of the nature of The Daily Show as an information source comes from looking at how subjects are treated. Everyone in the news media covered the fact that the presidential campaign began so early in 2007. But rather than a chance to dash off to the races, for Stewart and company it was a chance to poke fun at a candidate’s dubious choice of campaign slogan rather than speculating on her electoral chances.

A year before the Iowa primary, for example, Hillary Clinton was already touting the slogan ‘Let the Conversation Begin.’ Stewart certainly did. On January 29 he started a conversation about her conversation. “Look, this might not be the most politically correct thing to say, but I don’t think that slogan’s gonna help you with men…I think the typical response will be, ‘Now?’ You might as well get on your campaign bus, the I-Think-We-Really-Need-To-Talk Express to unveil your new Iraq policy, ‘America, let’s pull over and just ask for directions.’”

When it came to the debate over Iraq, the show often homed in on party-line bickering or what were perceived to be public gaffes.

A segment on January 22, for example, ridiculed President Bush’s suggestion that in the ongoing war in Iraq, the American public has sacrificed a great deal: namely “peace of mind when they see terrible images of violence on TV every night.”

The Daily Show’s Jason Jones: “It’s pretty rough. I mean, I can tell you my family has been through a lot in this war. I don’t know if you know this. But we were a Gold Star family. That was the brand of TV we had. Seventy-two inches worth of heartache, Jon. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was two days ago. It was 1800 hours…We were slowly making our way towards ESPN when suddenly, two clicks north of Bravo, from out of nowhere…from outta nowhere we see Charlie. Rose. He was talking to some guy about Iraq. And, it seemed like a drag.”

An incredulous Stewart: “So? What happened?”

Jones: “We just flipped over and watched University of Wisconsin beat Illinois. That’s right. You know, it was a really good game but man! Man, that Iraq story just bummed us out for a couple of seconds there.”

Some of the sharper satire suggests a clear point of view. Perhaps the most dominant recurring theme through the year was The Daily Show’s criticism of the Bush Administration policy in Iraq. That criticism often came in language too raw for the news media to ever use.

On July 19, Stewart talked about a National Intelligence Estimate report that said Al Qaeda was resurgent and had found a safe haven in Pakistan. He wondered, “How could [the Administration] deny it was the removal of our troops from Afghanistan to go to Iraq that caused the chaos allowing al Qaeda to come back in the first place?” Then viewers see a clip of Frances Townsend, Homeland Security Advisor, responding to a question from Diane Sawyer about whether there are more Al Qaeda in Iraq today than there were before American troops went in. Townsend replies, “It’s difficult to say because…I…I…I…there’s no baseline by which I can judge the numbers.”

“Aha! So that’s how they can deny it!” exclaimed Stewart, feigning sudden enlightenment. “They could play retarded. How could we know how much Al Qaeda was in Iraq before the invasion when we didn’t know sh** about Iraq when we went in? This wasn’t an invasion. It was a fact-finding mission. Hey! Did you know they’re Muslim?”

Questions about the acuity of Administration thinking was a recurring theme. On June 13, Daily Show “correspondent” Aasif Mandvi picked on the Administration’s new strategy to arm the Sunnis. As a senior Iraq “correspondent,” he witnessed a U.S official handing weapons to a Sunni insurgent. Mandvi reported that he saw the man give his word that he would only use weapons to attack Al Qaeda. “We gave him the guns which he swore he’d use to fight Al Qaeda. I saw him put his hand on the Bible.”

“The Bible? The Christian Bible?” asked an incredulous Stewart. It took a while for enlightenment to dawn on Mandvi. “Awh! Son of a b***h!” he exclaimed. “But what’re you gonna do?”

Amid the satire, there are elements to The Daily Show that might strike many viewers as journalistic in nature. High among these is the program’s use of video—including sometimes impressive culling of archival footage—to contrast or puncture wavering rhetoric of politicians.

On August 15, the show unearthed a 1994 clip of Vice President Cheney voicing opposition to a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Viewers saw the clip of Cheney telling a reporter, “Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what’re you going to put in its place?”

Then Stewart responded, “. . . 1994 Cheney makes an interesting point. If you take down Saddam’s regime, what would you put in its place? It’s the sort of question you could ponder for, say, nine years and still not come up with an answer.”

In 2007, the show also sent someone to Iraq, one of its “correspondents,” former Marine Corps reservist Rob Riggle. The purpose was comedic, but the fact that Riggle was actually in Iraq created a sense of something more, comedy with a sharper edge, something not merely amusing. In his satellite feeds from Iraq, one of Riggle’s favorite targets was the way military operations in Iraq were named. In keeping with this joke, Riggle gave over-the top monikers to his own segment, such as “Operation Silent Thunder.” The subtext, more than just a joke, was about the use of political language and military spin.

Cite this publication: Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project Staff. “Journalism, Satire or Just Laughs? "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Examined.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 8, 2008) http://www.journalism.org/2008/05/08/journalism-satire-or-just-laughs-the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-examined/, accessed on July 23, 2014.