May 8, 2008

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

Making Fun of the Press

Often Stewart and The Daily Show are praised for their criticism of the press itself. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart offers the best media criticism on television,” wrote Andrew Cline of Missouri State University. [1]

How much is the media itself a subject? In 2007, the media was the direct subject in 8% of the content on the program. That is more than twice as much as in the mainstream press (3%). But it may be less than some might have imagined.

Much of the apparent criticism of the press comes in the way The Daily Show talks about the news and in the use of clips, rather than in direct commentary about the media per se. It is, in effect, press criticism by comparison.

Nonetheless, there are times when Stewart and company take the press straight on.

At times, the focus is on individual journalists. On June 6, Stewart aired clips of Wolf Blitzer preparing for one of the Republican debates. Here, Blitzer took his viewers on a trip of “what you can expect.” He tells the audience how the candidates will enter the stage and that there was water available for them. Introducing the clips, Stewart joked, “Here we are almost 18 months before the general election and already CNN has run out of pre-debate filler material.”

Sometimes, the criticism is downright blunt. During an October 2 guest appearance by MSNBC host Chris Matthews about his book “Life’s a Campaign,” Matthews invited Stewart to Hardball. Stewart responds, “You know what? Can I say this? I don’t troll.”

An outraged Matthews responds, “You are unbelievable! You…This is a book interview from hell. This is the worst interview I’ve had in my life! …You are the worst!”

At other times, The Daily Show’s humor takes a broader swipe at the media overall. During the intense cable coverage of the death of former model Anna Nicole Smith, Stewart found plenty of fuel. [2] “On Thursday,” joked Stewart, “… 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.”

Later Stewart added, “There were also a slew of on-site investigative reports from locales as diverse as the front of the strip club where she met her billionaire husband to a picture of her possible Death Fridge…All to find out how a woman who appeared to be in a perpetual downward spiral somehow spiraled downward.”

Addressing perhaps the most tragic story of the year—the killings at Virginia Tech—Stewart again focused not on the event but on the press reaction to it. Ten days after the event, Stewart offered a commentary on the coverage. “You know there’s been a lot of debate about how to cover the Virginia Tech killings,” Stewart noted. “Indeed, even over here, we’re torn between addressing it or, my preference, sitting in a corner, and rocking back and forth and weeping. But the rest of the media had so many questions: What went into the mind of this killer? Could this have been prevented and, perhaps most pressing, how did we do?” After showing various clips of other television broadcasts which ended when one Fox News reporter commented: “Shepard Smith of Fox, probably, was the most credible when he asked the students, ‘how are you feeling?’ he seemed to really mean it,” Stewart responded, “…Is that the journalistic standard we have in this country? Hey! We almost mean it when we ask how you’re doing. We almost seem human. Which is really ironic because most of us are f***ing sociopaths!”


Footnotes
1. Available at: http://rhetorica.net/archives/002736.html
2. Cable TV news in particular obsessed over the circumstances surrounding her death, devoting nearly a quarter (22%) of cable news airtime to Smith in the 3 weeks following her death.