brucekluger.com

    USA Today, February 4, 2004

    Politics 2004: Laugh and learn

    By Bruce Kluger


    For once, Jon Stewart wasn't actually
    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 comedianthe subject of
    a recent Newsweek cover story
    headlined, "Jon Stewart, Seriously
    Funny"added this dubious bit of
    modesty: "We have no delusions of
    importance."

    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
    face-off.

    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 showsnotably, 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
    previously."

    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 SNLa 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 needsis 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 worriedabout 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 continuedfrom 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 kidwhen the day's events were recapped during the dinner
    hour by a Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner or Barbara Waltersthe 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 storywhen audacious propaganda dresses up as actual
    newsthen 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 storiesfrom its coverage of the Iraq war to election
    2004. So can we really blame serious news junkiesor ordinary concerned
    citizensfor turning to Jon Stewart this campaign season, if only in an effort escape
    the madness?

    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
    don't laugh."


    (Photograph of John Stewart from comedycentral.com.)