May 8, 2008

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

Attacking Politicians: Who Gets Ridiculed?

With so much focus on government and political figures, the next obvious question is which ones? Are some people—or some political parties—considered better targets for ridicule than others?

PEJ examined the question two different ways. First, we identified the main figures being talked about (the lead newsmakers) in the show’s segments (including the monologues, skits and interviews) from July 1 through November 1, 2007 (when the writer’s strike began). [1] Second, we looked more specifically at the line-up of on-air guests throughout the year.

The short answer, according to these measurements, is that in 2007 the light shone brighter on Republicans. They were more often the targets of Stewart’s humor. In the mix of on-air guests, Democrats and Republicans appeared in near equal numbers. But a more qualitative impression suggests that those Republican guests are far more likely to be challenged by the host.

Newsmakers in The Daily Show: Subjects of Humor
First, consider who was placed under the show’s microscope most often. In the time frame examined, members of the Bush Administration were the focus of discussion in 22% of the segments (52 segments in all).

Add in people beyond the Administration, and Republicans dominate even more. Of the top 17 party-aligned newsmakers dealt with in the segments during the year, 12 were Republicans versus just 5 Democrats. [2]

More than three times as many segments found humor at the expense of President Bush (14) than the top Democratic newsmaker, Hillary Clinton (4). Even Dick Cheney was the focus of more than twice as many segments as Clinton (10 versus 4) and Karl Rove nearly twice as many (7 stories in all). In fact, the only clearly aligned Democrats in the top fifteen newsmakers were Hillary and Bill Clinton (Next is Wesley Clark at No. 16).

On many occasions, the humor aimed at these officials was quite personal. Throughout 2007, for example, Stewart aired a recurring segment called “You Don’t Know Dick” which focused on Vice President Dick Cheney.

The June 28 episode ended with the following quip from Stewart: “For some reason Cheney actually invented his own fake classification, ‘Treated as Secret/ SCI.’ Because apparently, the government’s own classification, ‘Top Secret’ and ‘Classified’ don’t sound appropriately Blofeldian. The best part is Cheney uses the stamp on things like political talking points for staff members who are going to deal with reporters. In others words, stuff he wants the public to know. Which, I am not sure he understands, is the opposite of secret.”

Fewer segments focused on Democrats, but when their number did come up, the punch could be just as strong.

Take, for example, the new Democratic-led Congress which Stewart ridiculed for its overly ambitious agenda. He joked on January 10, “Last week, after twelve years out of power, House Democrats took over with a full agenda: Raise the minimum wage! Lower Medicare costs! Fund stem-cell research! Resolve the Iraq War! Federal grants for monkeys washing cats! It’s a heady agenda. And last Thursday Nancy Pelosi, in her first speech as House Speaker, upped the ambition ante.”

[Clip of Nancy Pelosi speaking] “This new Congress doesn’t have two years, or two hundred days. Let us join together in the first one hundred hours and make this the Congress the most honest and open Congress in history. One hundred hours.”

“The Democrats are giving themselves only 100 hours to solve American’s problems,” retorted Stewart. “Now, you may say, ‘Wait! Wasn’t that speech given last Thursday, over 140 hours ago? And we still have ****ing problems?’ Touché, my friend: well observed.”


On-Air Guest Interviews

In the second way of analyzing party-line differences—the guest lineup—the picture was more balanced, at least quantitatively.

In 2007, 136 different guests [3] (some appeared twice in the year) appeared. Of those, 41 were celebrities or guests from the world of pop culture, 33 were politicians and pundits with well known political leanings , and 57 were either journalists, experts, authors, or politicians whose political ideologies were difficult to pin down. [4]

Of the guests who have a clear political leaning, 15 had ties to the political right and 18 to the left.

 

Yet the numbers alone may not capture the full flavor. A close, albeit more subjective, examination of the interviews with those guests suggests the balance may not be quite so even. On a number of occasions, Stewart seems to challenge his conservative guests more harshly than those with liberal viewpoints.

Take, for example, Stewart’s interview with conservative author Stephen Hayes.

Hayes appeared on August 15, soon after the release of his biography on Dick Cheney. This biography was very sympathetic towards the Vice President, painting him as a leader who was always quiet, powerful and dedicated to strengthening the Executive Branch. Hayes’ Daily Show interview began amicably enough but then became much more heated as the discussion turned to the Administration’s strategy in Iraq. At one point, Hayes stated that Cheney does not like admitting to mistakes, but did admit that the White House underestimated how difficult Iraq would be, and criticized the way post-war Iraq had been handled. Stewart replied strongly, “Then stop making the rest of us feel like idiots when we question their strategy on the war on terror and stop making—and I don’t mean you, I mean them—I think that they’ve gone, they’ve seemingly gone out of their way to belittle people and he’s actually literally come out and said if you don’t elect us, we might get hit again. That to me is—I can’t jive the portrait you paint of the steadfast leader with the fearmongering, not bright guy that I’ve seen.”

Earlier, on March 7, another Republican, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton came on as a guest on The Daily Show. The interview became heated as it progressed into differing definitions of democratic theory and the power of the executive branch. Bolton argued that threats to democratic theory come from people in government who try to put constraints on what the President can do by having advocates within the government. “But aren’t those called checks and balances?” Stewart countered. “Here’s what I imagine is a threat to what I would consider is democratic theory,” he continued. “The secrecy of what they do and their inability to share. Because…you may be right…but why not then just come out and say that? Why the games? Why, when you go after and you out a C.I.A. agent, why not just and say, ‘she was the person who sent Joe Wilson. He was wrong and all I did was tell newspaper reporters that fact.’ Why then pretend, ‘no, we didn’t say that. We had nothing to do with it.’ Man up and come out and say these people have to be sympathetic to the President. Why lie about it?”

When it came to liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, however, Stewart was much more convivial. During Moore’s appearance on June 27, they both joked about the comedic nature of Moore’s movie, “Sicko,” about the U.S. healthcare system. Moore then declared, “Actually, yeah, it’s pretty tragic.” Stewart encouraged Moore to talk more about the film but never challenged Moore’s theories. As Moore turned to his getting bumped off Larry King Live because of news about Paris Hilton, the sense of camaraderie continued. “But then I thought about it and I figured,” Moore reasoned sarcastically, “you know…you know, the priorities are in order. Paris Hilton, healthcare for all…you know…” Stewart sympathetically replied, “I think if she’s ok, aren’t we all ok.” Moore agreed, playing on the same joke. “She is our proxy…” Stewart continued, “In many respects, she is the canary in our coal mine.”

What explains these differences? Why do Republicans find themselves more a topic of ridicule than Democrats? We cannot answer that definitively here, but can suggest some possibilities.

One explanation is that the show’s writers and producers and Stewart himself are simply liberal, and in the course of offering their comedy are also offering their own political views.

Another possibility is that the agenda is fundamentally more anti-establishment than anti-Republican. The party that controls the White House has the preponderance of power, and thus gets the preponderance of the satirical skewer. Past research has suggested that in the mainstream press coverage, the party in control of government tends to be put through greater scrutiny than the minority party. [6] And, comedy, to an even greater degree than traditional news coverage, is often about questioning authority. This is the argument, or the defense, that at least one of the show’s executives has offered. As recently as April 30, the show’s senior associate producer Adam Chodikoff explained in a Washington Post story, “The show is anti-Establishment. Bush happens to be the president. He’s the one in power.” [7]

To assess whether this second explanation would hold true, it would be interesting to examine how the show differed if a Democrat were to win the Oval Office.

 

 

 


Footnotes
1. The lead newsmaker variable was introduced into the coding protocol from July 1, 2007 and so only stories from that date were coded for that variable.
2. There were a few rare instances were the lead newsmaker of the segments was not the subject of critical humor. In an interview with Lynne Cheney, for example, she and Stewart discussed her book, “Blue Skies, No Fences: A Memoir of Childhood and Family.” In this instance, she was the lead newsmaker but instead of becoming the focus of Stewart’s comedic barbs, she was a partner in the conversation.
3. Shows from June 25 and October 18 were not captured or coded. Guests from these dates were not a part of our sample.
4. For a guest to be placed in either the conservative or liberal column, she/ he must have demonstrated obvious political leanings. For example, Chuck Schumer, a Democratic Senator, would fall into the liberal group. And press figures such as noted conservative media personality, Bill Kristol, were marked as conservative. A number of politicians, celebrities or press pundits may have political opinions that lean toward one side or the other, but for the purposes of this study, only the most obvious of political activists were classified with an ideology.
5. This does not include comedian Dennis Miller and Republican politician Ron Paul, both of whom could be classified as conservatives in certain circumstances. In this study, Dennis Miller was classified as a celebrity even though he has voiced his conservative political opinions on many outlets, and Ron Paul was placed in the group with politicians whose ideologies were difficult to identify. Paul, an avowed Libertarian and member of the Republican Party, has views that could be considered conservative on some issues and liberal on others (such as the Iraq War).
6. David Niven, “Tilt?: The Search for Media Bias” Praeger Publishers. 2002
7. Paul Farhi, “It’s Funny How Funny Just the Facts can Be,” Washington Post, April 30, 2008, C1.