Friday, June 23, 2006

Jon Stewart, Public Enemy #1

Researchers have found that, after an intermediate-level class in literature, students were more likely to be skeptical of one-sided textual interpretations!

No, sorry, sorry. Researchers have found that an adequate grounding in nutrition makes people more likely to read food labels thoroughly before purchasing!

Sorry, sorry again. No, what they found is that watching "The Daily Show" made people more cynical about politics. You can see why I got confused. After all, the basic principles are the same: making people aware of the various facets of a complex topic will usually cause them to be more discerning. That's why people with something to hide tend to simplify.

This is only a problem when people parlay such results into headlines like "Jon Stewart: Enemy of Democracy?" The implication is that, by making people aware of the complexity -- and often the ugliness -- of politics, Stewart will induce a sense of apathy among the youth, and prevent them from voting. There are a few mistakes here. First, there's an unstated assumption that "The Daily Show" presents an inaccurate view of political events. Since this isn't so, despite TDS's status as a humor program, we must entertain the possibility that it's the events themselves -- not Stewart's reports -- that are causing cynicism. As Nick argues, it's democracy, not reporting on democracy, that's harming democracy. There is also, to my mind, a serious misunderstanding of the significance of cynicism. The unstated assumption is that cynicism leads to apathy, but I find that a slightly jaundiced view of politics is necessary to avoid hopeless idealism and promote a down-to-brass-tacks sort of activism. Plus, if Stewart makes people cynical, he makes them even more righteously angry. I don't have study data on that, of course, but I'd like to see it done.

It's obvious at this point that we here at Truth Tables like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. We consider them to be ambassadors of logic and reason. And this sort of overblown well-poisoning is really unnecessary. Must we really leap from "people express more political cynicism after watching 'The Daily Show'" to "'The Daily Show' will keep people from voting"? The argument, besides being oversimplified, relies on covert premises and disingenuous assumptions about causation. If you were actually watching Jon Stewart, Richard Morin, you'd have better reasoning than that.


Blogger Laura said...

From the article:
Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris of East Carolina University said previous research found that nearly half -- 48 percent -- of this age group watched "The Daily Show" and only 23 percent of show viewers followed "hard news" programs closely.

Every time I see this kind of alarmist study, the pundits pull out this kind of false dichotomy: you watch Jon Stewart or you watch "hard news." Never mind for the moment that the Post article does not tell us what the researchers define as "hard news"--that's another issue altogether. But to assume that people get their new from TV at all is so, well, 1990s. Of course young people don't watch network news; in an age when all of the NY Times is accessible online (with a little help from bugmenot), who's going to sit down at 6:30 to watch what Brian Williams says happened in the world today? We can see what CNN or BBC says minute by minute. We can read the newspaper to see what lasts more than 5 minutes in the news cycle--and we can get more than a 30-second sound byte to understand what it is. You're completely right, Jess--there are myriad unstated assumptions here, few of which seem supportable to anyone under, say, 35.

What this article also fails to acknowledge is that The Daily Show is not funny if you don't follow the news. Period. They don't do segments on pet psychics like in the Craig Kilborn age. The show is a fake news show about real news. If its audience can discern irony, and therefore express cynicism, more readily than those who just watch the talking heads, then democracy is better for it.

June 23, 2006 6:26 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I accidentily ran across this article on Friday. It was being pointed to by some conservative blog in a post entitled, "Jon Stewart, stop hurting America!" I'll give them points for being clever.

The bit in the Washington Post was really pretty poorly written. For example, the blurb you included above, laura, is essentially meaningless unless we have some idea what percentage of the population at large watches "hard news". And, as you say, what in the world is included in "hard news"? It just seems like alarmism.

I don't really doubt the study's primary result, that watching the Daily Show makes people more cynical and gives them a more negative opinnion of both politicians and the news media. What I question is the assumption that this is necessarily a bad thing and the completely unsubstantiated inference that this will lead people not to vote. It seems to me that the study is just being used as a flimsy justification for preconcieved notions and, by some, as an excuse to attack a show they don't like.

I glanced at the study, which can be found here, and skimming it gave me the impression that it had relatively careful methodology. The two most worrying things that I noticed, methodologically, were that their sample consisted entirely of political science majors in college who watched a few-minute-long clip of the 2004 presidential electrion coverage and then immediately took a survey. I question to what degree one can generalized this to the long-term effects of watching the Daily Show on all "college age" viewers. But, as I said, I only glanced at the study.

I wonder if the effect of the Daily Show couldn't be summed up as, "familiarity breeds contempt." While it's true that much of the election coverage on almost all news sorces was negative, I think that much of it consisted of simply repeating the attacks launched by the political machines on each side. What makes the Daily Show stand out is that they seem to spend more time trying to hoist people by their own petard. I can see why showing candidates contradicting themselves or saying foolish things would undermine one's confidence in those candidates more profoundly. But, if it's based on reality, is this actually bad? Is it really a virtue to have people think well of their politicians whether or not they deserve it? This sort of critical analysis is exactly what I look for in my news.

I'm also pretty skeptical that Jon Stewart causes people not to vote. For myself, I know that it makes me angry to see hypocracy and foolishness and spurs me to get involved. Conversely, sometimes getting an opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of politics helps defuse frustration that can lead to disillusionment. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that watching political comedy leads to disengagement, but it seems like foolishness to me to start writing articles about this "danger" when there's no actual proof that it's the case, and it could just as easily be the opposite.

As this Media Matters article notes, a 2004 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found, "In fact, Daily Show viewers
have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers -- even when education, party identification, following politics, watching cable news,
receiving campaign information online, age, and gender are taken into consideration." Finally, even the study in question in the Post article found that people who watched the Daily Show were more likely to feel they better understood politics. The study dismisses this as illusory, again without proof, but it seems to me that these two facts together cast serious doubt on the hypothesis that the Daily Show will cause disengagement from politics.

Without some further proof, this supposed concern is nothing more than wild conjecture and, perhaps, wishful thinking on the part of those wishing to find fault with the Daily Show.

June 25, 2006 3:23 PM  

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