USA Today, February 4, 2004
Politics 2004: Laugh and learn
By Bruce Kluger
trying to be funny.
Known for his no-bunk, all-sass
approach to the news, the host of
Comedy Central's The Daily Show was
speaking to reporters about his
program's planned coverage of the
2004 presidential election.
"Our responsibility is to be the
smartest, funniest show we could
possibly be," said Stewart, accurately
describing his irreverent laugh-fest.
But then the comedian—the subject of
a recent Newsweek cover story
headlined, "Jon Stewart, Seriously
Funny"—added this dubious bit of
modesty: "We have no delusions of
Au contraire, funny man.
A Pew study released last month shows that only 23% of Americans ages 18-29
now tune into the broadcast news networks for the latest on this presidential
campaign. That's a 16-percentage-point drop since the calamitous 2000 Florida
Instead, the survey found, an almost equal number of young adult viewers (21%)
cull their knowledge of the candidates' stump speeches, position papers and
landmark gaffes from TV's comedy shows—notably, Saturday Night Live and
Stewart's nightly roundup.
"For many young people," the study says, "the content of the jokes, sketches and
appearances on these programs is not just a repeat of old information...27% of all
respondents under age 30 say they learn things about the candidates and
campaigns from late-night and comedy programming that they did not know
In other words, when The Daily Show's "Indecision 2004" segment describes
Howard Dean as "half-man, half-monkey from Vermont"—or when Al Sharpton plays
Johnnie Cochran, James Brown and Michael Jackson's father during his stint as
host of SNL—a quarter of the country's younger voters are absorbing this
information the way think-tank analysts sop up the latest Brookings Institution report.
Is this the end of democracy as we know it? Not really. The one thing politics lacks—
and desperately needs—is a sense of humor.
Think about it: One of the most often-quoted "funny" comments made by a politician
in the past 20 years occurred in 1984, when presidential candidate Walter Mondale
borrowed from a then-popular Wendy's commercial to level his primary opponent,
Gary Hart, with the zinger, "Where's the beef?" I'm no Al Franken, but that's not
exactly a thigh-slapper.
Furthermore, laughter always has helped Americans cope with their uneasiness
about current events, especially when it comes to the fellow who holds the keys to
the Oval Office. When John Kennedy was elected to the presidency in 1960, many
Americans worried—about his Catholicism, his youth, his inexperience. But when a
little-known nightclub comic named Vaughan Meader recorded an album in 1962
called The First Family, featuring a breathy Jackie and a pitch-perfect JFK
impersonation, Americans embraced the lampoon and, along with it, their new,
untested president. The LP was an overnight sensation.
The tradition has continued—from the Smothers Brothers' smirking condemnation
of the Johnson and Nixon administrations to Chevy Chase's stumbling incarnation
of Gerald Ford on SNL to Jay Leno's rat-a-tat gags aimed at anyone who dares to
put his or her name on a ballot.
It's comforting to know that Americans still can laugh at the screwier machinations of
democracy, even as we proudly trot off to the voting booth to engage in them.
What's worrisome is the notion that comedy has begun to replace the news as
opposed to leavening it.
Unlike when I was a kid—when the day's events were recapped during the dinner
hour by a Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner or Barbara Walters—the top stories
now have become tailored to the myriad schedules, hair-splitting demographics and
passionate political leanings of TV's viewers. As a result, the nightly (and morning
and mid-day) news has transformed into an indiscernible potpourri of panel shows,
partisan debates and clamorous shout- fests. This, the Pew study says, is one
reason viewers have fled to the likes of Stewart. Thirty-eight percent of those
surveyed, Pew says, believe the news is objective. That's down from the 62% who
assumed the news was "free of partisan bias" in 1987.
So when did the conventional news hour splinter into a thousand points of fight?
Peter Hart, a media analyst for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, says partisan
debate always existed beneath the surface of broadcast news, but now has become
"the dominant programming model" in cable news. "Programmers were looking for a
way to make sure people don't change the channel," Hart says, "and they settled
on a solution: Tease the audience with a fight, rather than provide reasonable
dialogue or timely information. In the end, they seek to inflame the passions that
already exist in those viewers."
Fans of this new era of "news delivery" argue that the transformation is a welcome
reflection of the diversity of American thought. But when opinion and analysis
effectively replace the story—when audacious propaganda dresses up as actual
news—then we're headed for trouble.
For example, last year "fair and balanced" Fox News covered the death of former
South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond by running dewy-eyed pre-packaged
eulogies that never used the word "segregation." A similar revisionist spin creeps
between the lines of many Fox stories—from its coverage of the Iraq war to election
2004. So can we really blame serious news junkies—or ordinary concerned
citizens—for turning to Jon Stewart this campaign season, if only in an effort escape
Call it a new twist on that famous 1960s slogan, "turn on and tune out"—only in this
case, it's "tune in and turn off." Or better still, maybe we've entered an era best
described by a variation of another timeworn motto, namely: "It only hurts when I