Harvard Political Review on Jon Stewart

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Inciteful comments on The Daily Show from the Harvard Political Review:

People are listening to Jon Stewart. With his recent best-seller America (The Book) and his hit fake news show on Comedy Central, The Daily Show, it seems clear that his message is being heard: for instance, over 1.5 million people tuned in to watch Stewart interview John Kerry. Still, his message and role are not so clear, depending in large part on who is listening.

Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly characterized Stewart’s audience as "stoned slackers" and "dopey kids," when Stewart appeared on The O’Reilly Factor last September. Regardless of the veracity of those statements, O’Reilly hit closer to home when he added, "You know what’s really frightening? You actually have an influence on this presidential election. That is scary, but it’s true."

Tough Crowd
O’Reilly’s description of Stewart’s fans is a bit off the mark. According to the National Annenberg Election Survey from the University of Pennsylvania, Daily Show viewers are 78 percent more likely than the average adult to have four or more years of college education. If these are the "stoned slackers" to whom O’Reilly referred, it is interesting to consider who watches his program: the survey found that O’Reilly’s audience was only 24 percent more likely than average to have this same level of education.

With such an educated audience comes a certain set of expectations for Stewart. His popularity among educated young Americans might be due to a desire for a more critical (or satirical) approach to the news. When the same Annenberg survey also found that Daily Show viewers know more about election issues than people who get their news from traditional media outlets, this is not because Stewart better informs his viewers-the viewers themselves tune in to his program already informed of the issues.

Viewers do not value his fictional account of current events for its factual merit but rather for its satire and scathing honesty. A survey by the Pew Research Center, published in January 2004, verifies this supposition, finding that 21 percent of people under the age of 30 now name comedy shows as one of their primary news sources. Given this increasing influence of political satire, it should come as no surprise that Stewart was able to capitalize on his success with the release of America (The Book).

America (The Phenomenon)
Since America’s release, the public has responded enthusiastically, propelling it to the top spot on the New York Times best-seller list. Subtitled A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, America is an uproarious parody on a high-school civics textbook, which gives Stewart and his writing accomplices even more leeway to ridicule American democracy and its origins than they have on the air. The writers bring a comical and irreverent perspective to the most salient (and vulnerable) aspects of current democratic practices, from the quasi-authoritative office of the president to the ravenous role of the media.

America levels its aim at countless cherished views of American history and politics, revealing oft-overlooked absurdities. The authors set the tone for their edifying text by employing an effective technique: they posit a commonly held belief-one that would be taught in a similarly designed high-school textbook-only to undermine it with a scathing wit. The writers infuse every element of the book with an intelligence and wit that forces the reader to chuckle and ponder simultaneously. However, whether readers value America more for its silliness or for its thoughtful criticism remains to be seen.

Mythical moments in U.S. history do not escape the satirical scrutiny. For instance, the ratification of the Constitution is portrayed as such: the "Founders prayed only that [it] be ratified, respected and upheld…and that nobody would tell the black people about it." Humorous moments such as this, though, tend to provide the most profound statements about what we accept as sacred. The divine adjudicators that comprise the Supreme Court are presented in all their naked glory-literally, pictured deprived of their robes, but not their sags and wrinkles.

Through its stylized humor and thought-provoking candor, America sets a benchmark for satire. Rather than degenerating into 223 pages of mere lowbrow and puerile humor-which is present but not overwhelming-America maintains an unparalleled level of incisiveness, beautifully exposing the ironies of established, and often contradictory, views of American democracy. America’s success lies in its ability to balance derisive comedy with thoughtful critique. Stewart and company have notably achieved that of which most political satirists only dream: the ability to force readers to not only laugh at their institutions, but to reevaluate them as well.

Hurting Democracy?
However, some have charged Stewart with doing something dangerous with America, and the similar political satire and social criticism on The Daily Show. Wal-Mart is among those challengers. On Oct. 17, 2004 the retail giant cancelled their order to shelve the books when it discovered the aforementioned section involving the nine Supreme Court justices, declaring that Wal-Mart customers would not find this sort of humor appealing.

While some might be offended by Stewart, it is still not clear whether or not the man is truly dangerous, or even influential outside of his circle of admirers. Stewart undoubtedly knows how to give an audience what it wants, but he could be further polarizing the country by making serious issues into laughing matters.

This might be the case if people were tuning in to Stewart’s show without any political knowledge. But those who are watching have an above average level of knowledge of the events and players in the American political scene-a necessity to appreciate much of Stewart’s humor. Yet this does not elucidate the full extent of his effect: either these young people tuning in are having their minds changed, or Stewart is preaching to a choir of young, well-educated, largely urban Democrats.

Stewart’s Following
Indeed, Barry Burden, a professor of government at Harvard, told the HPR in a recent interview that "in the last few years, with things like Fox News rising on the right, people are self-selecting into media outlets that are merely reinforcing their preexisting ideas. People are looking for facts, arguments or even humor that agree with what they thought ahead of time."

It cannot be said for sure whether Stewart is mobilizing an army for change, or just using humor to entertain those already unhappy with the status quo. However, it seems there is no reason that he cannot be doing both. After seeing Stewart’s calm, passionate, and above all genuine plea on CNN’s Crossfire for the news media to stop "hurting America," it is hard to doubt the comedian’s intent. And even if Stewart is not changing the minds of O’Reilly Factor viewers, maybe he is still having an impact on the minds of some who tune in to his show.

On that note, Burden left the HPR with this food for thought: "It is ironic that satire offering criticism of politics has the power to get people politically involved. Perhaps there are some youth who are cynical about politics, not particularly informed, but still feeling some connection to what is going on, and are tuning into Comedy Central and are coming away a little less cynical and little more informed."