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October - November 2008


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More Get "News" from Late-Night TV
by Marianne Wood '08, English major

In the last few years, Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show,” has won two Peabody Awards, including one for his 2000 and 2004 election coverage, a number of Emmy Awards, hosted the Oscars twice, thrown out the first pitch in Yankee Stadium, and was on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his overwhelming popularity there are many who claim that he is at the forefront of a journalistic movement towards “infotainment,” a movement that some argue raises cynicism in the viewer and will ultimately lead to a breakdown of mainstream media outlets as viable news sources.

I would argue that to ignore his contribution to journalism would be to miss out on one of the most important shifts that our media have undergone in recent years.

Look at the results of these studies: One claims that viewers of “The Daily Show” (TDS) are more politically informed than those who only watch more mainstream news programs. Another study, of 18-29-year-olds, found that 23% said they learned something about the 2004 presidential election from the nightly news, 21% said their regular campaign news came from comedy shows, such as “Saturday Night Live,” and Stewart’s “Daily Show.” That means one in five preferred getting their “news” from a fake source.

Jon StewartBy maintaining that his show is “fake,” Stewart is able to insert his opinion, weigh the news of the day, and pick and choose the moments he wants to explore, distort, and fictionalize. Yet, even though Stewart claims that his show is aimed at amusing, we cannot discuss “The Daily Show” as just another funny late-night comedy show. As veteran journalist Bill Moyers puts it, “You simply cannot understand American politics in the new millennium without “The Daily Show.” Stewart takes the goings-on of mainstream news and makes them approachable, understandable, and often very funny. He advertises himself as a majorcomedian with very little journalistic credibility. However, he does see his comedy as having a certain effect on his audiences. In his 2003 interview with Moyers, Stewart says, “I think of myself as a comedian who has the pleasure of writing jokes about things that I actually care about. And that’s really it.”

This is the image of himself that Stewart hopes to convey to his audiences and to his critics – that of a shameless comedian who simply explores the absurdities of today’s world. However, ask any audience member or critic how he or she might characterize Stewart and I am sure he or she would come up with a number of varied responses. What, then, is Stewart’s ethos? How does he present this image and how is it received? These are the questions we must ask if we are to understand the development of Jon Stewart, the self-proclaimed comedian and accidental social, media, and political critic. Stewart and others, such as Stephen Colbert from the “The Colbert Report” (TCR), use a technique called “re-mediation.” Mediation is the idea that most news seen on TV or read in the newspaper is filtered first by sources trying to control what is seen and then by news organizations’ choosing what to show. TDS takes these mediated images, material that already has appeared on other programs, and builds on it. So what it is doing is re-mediation—taking something that has been altered for lack of a better term and then changing it again.

TDS constructs its humor out of images that it gleans from more mainstream programs, as well as through various interviews and “on-the-scene” reporting. By constructing his show out of these variously fragmented images, he makes it apparent that what he is presenting on the show is not supposed to be what media critics call “immediate.” In fact, it strives to make its constructed nature quite apparent. By doing this, the show highlights the refusal of mainstream media outlets to recognize their own constructed natures. Thus, in the end, Stewart helps his audiences to recognize the constructed
nature of all news.

Similarly, Stewart seeks to identify with his viewers by persuading them that he, despite differences in race or class or profession, is similar to them in some way. Through his gestures, responses, and use of language, he develops an ethos of the “everyman.” This mode models itself on a long tradition of satirical fools – from the many clowns in Shakespeare’s plays to Russian philosopher Bakhtin’s notion of the wise fool. This cultural form allows Stewart, like Swift, Twain, and many others before him, to ultimately speak the underlying truth to power.

And as “everyman,” Stewart takes on the identity of the viewers. Guests often want to show Stewart, and his audience, that they are capable of engaging in the “Daily Show” milieu, a mix of disarming humor and what media critic Geoffrey Baym calls “a more important deviation from the rules of interviewing, which is Stewart’s willingness to move beyond questioning to express his own opinions and to make factual or theoretical
contributions to the discussion.” The audience respects Stewart’s “willingness to move beyond questioning” because, in doing so, he is able to get at the deeper issues in which they themselves are interested. The guests, on the other hand, appreciate such deviations because it gives them a stage to discuss, dissect, and defend their work, interests, lifestyles, and beliefs.

Ultimately, although he models himself as a fake anchor, Stewart does take his role as “funnyman” seriously. Through humor, parody, and satire, he is able to question some of our most established American practices, resulting in a more informed, more engaged public, a public that feels bolstered by the fact that they “get” his jokes and confident that they too can take part in politics by watching his show and sharing in his laughter. Although this merger of news and entertainment leaves us wondering what it means that the “clown” has replaced the traditional news anchor, Stewart, through his “everyman” persona and use of humor, helps to remind us that even clowns can sometimes think critically.