May 8, 2008

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

Like a Cable Talk Show

In some ways, the media sectors The Daily Show has most in common with are cable and radio talk. They each have a similar emphasis on government and politics: 31% on newshole in The Daily Show, 35% in radio talk shows and 30% in cable talk shows versus 18% in news programs overall.

These genres also spend more time than the others on analysis of the work of the press. Eight percent of The Daily Show’s coverage was devoted to discussing the press, as was 6% of all cable talk show coverage. In talk radio, this coverage was even higher, at 16%.

Even the way Stewart describes his mission fits somewhat with the mantra of talk programs. In talking with Bill Moyers, Stewart likened his show less to a product of journalism and more to an editorial cartoon that helps people to “digest” the day’s events. If it does anything, he said, it helps “provide one little bit of context, that’s very specifically focused, and hopefully people can add to their entire puzzle that gives them a larger picture of what it is that they see.”

Agenda and model notwithstanding, The Daily Show is clearly impacting American dialogue. The audience numbers are significant, and its hold over a particular audience demographic of young people may magnify that influence even more. The reasons for that hold may vary. It could be that the show’s anti-Administration perspective has struck a chord. Perhaps the impact comes in part from the fact that the political right has found an alternative ideological media in talk radio. The Daily Show, in effect, constitutes yet another kind of alternative media—cable comedy. Some of the show’s sway as an information source could also come from language, and the sense that it is more candid, and thus somehow closer to one sense of accuracy than the more hidebound traditional media. “My students tell me they read the news for facts, but they watch Jon Stewart for the truth,” Professor Steve Lacy of Michigan State University has observed. [1] The Daily Show’s sophisticated and often journalistic use of video to puncture the spin of the political may also connect to a deeper function that journalists are expected to serve—speaking truth to power, or at least unveiling deviations from the truth.

Whatever the elements, this brief examination makes at least some conclusions possible. In its subject matter, The Daily Show is indeed journalistic. Its topic agenda is highly focused on the public square, on issues of significance, particularly those focused around Washington. Its agenda is not dissimilar, indeed, from other cable talk shows. The language is even more blunt, and its point often more direct. The Daily Show is no doubt entertainment, but it is entertainment, measurably, with a substantive point. It is, in its own way, another kind of No Spin Zone.

1. Lacy made the observation in a meeting with PEJ staff in June 2007.