Column: The Stewart-Colbert Factor

By Daniel Lynch

Millions of Americans watch them. They have been compared to Murrow and Cronkite, Shakespearian fools, and even Socrates. Their guests have included world leaders, celebrities, leading scientists, and everything in between. But just who and what are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: 21st century journalists or, as they claim, mere comedians? The answer is not entirely clear-cut, as the line between comedy and journalism has blurred. Nonetheless, their position has given them a unique ability to raise issues and call out politicians in ways that mainstream journalists will not. They should embrace this power and the responsibility that comes with it.

“Fools… speak wisely what wise men do foolishly” (As You Like It 1.2)

Stewart defines himself as “a comedian” and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as “fake news.” In an interview on Meet the Press, Colbert described his character on The Colbert Report as “an active idiot.” However, some have argued that the Stewart-Colbert brand of “fake news” can actually be substantive and impactful. Their shows frequently highlight and raise awareness of serious issues, including some that may not receive sufficient attention from politicians and the mainstream media.

For instance, while many politicians decline to talk seriously about climate change, Colbert and Stewart have invited leading scientists to discuss the issue. Indeed, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that, in 2007, The Daily Show “devoted a greater percentage of its news to science/technology and environmental stories than did the mainstream news media.” Shortly after Colbert invited astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson on the show to criticize proposed cuts to NASA’s manned space program, President Obama, coincidentally or not, backtracked on the proposed cuts.

Similarly, Stewart repeatedly lambasted Congress for holding up benefits for 9/11 First Responders (the “Zadroga Act”), increasing coverage of the issue and arguably shaming Congress into eventually passing the bill. Meanwhile, by creating his own Super PAC, Colbert called attention to the issue of campaign finance and what he calls the “politico-industrial complex,” winning a Peabody Award for his efforts.

The substantive content of these shows has not been lost on viewers. While Stewart and Colbert insist that they are not newsmen, some, especially younger viewers, view the shows as legitimate news sources. A 2004 Pew study found that shows like The Daily Show rivaled traditional broadcast news as sources of campaign information for young adults. Meanwhile, an Indiana University study found that The Daily Show’s coverage of the 2004 campaign was as substantive as network news. Furthermore, a 2007 Pew survey found that regular viewers of Stewart’s and Colbert’s shows were much better informed than the national average and were even better informed than those who rely on traditional news outlets.

The appeal of Stewart and Colbert may be largely driven by deep frustration with current political reality. Timothy McCarthy, Director of the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a cultural historian, told the HPR that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have become “place[s] where people would go to get their news because our politics ha[s] become so absurd and so…superficial and really all about a series of performances” that are themselves much like entertainment. Indeed, when asked if the shows ever push the envelope and become offensive, Stewart himself told Maureen Dowd, “I don’t understand how anyone can consider jokes about this stuff worse than the reality of it.”

“There’s no slander in an allowed fool” (Twelfth Night 1.5)

Arguably, an advantage Stewart and Colbert have over mainstream journalists is that, like the jesters and Shakespearian fools of old, they occupy a position outside the societal, or in this case, journalistic, mainstream from which they can tear into politicians and mainstream journalists without fear of pushback or accusations of bias. According to Paul Cantor, a culture critic and visiting professor of government at Harvard, they “share with a venerable satirical tradition,” a willingness and license to “speak truth to power.” Cantor told the HPR that he has been “struck by how many times particularly Stewart has brought up an issue that the mainstream media refused to deal with.”

Clearly, Stewart takes on powerful people and weighty issues, perhaps surprising for a self-described comedian. According to McCarthy, however, “we are in a political and cultural moment where the distinction between entertainment and political journalism is being blurred.” He traces this blurring of the line between journalism and entertainment to the 1996 emergence of Fox News and MSNBC, which offer a mix of news coverage, “explicitly partisan” commentary and entertainment segments like Chris Matthews’ “Hardball Sideshow” and Bill O’Reilly’s “Dumbest Things of the Week.” McCarthy believes that the emergence of Stewart and Colbert “even further complicates and blurs those lines of distinction” between journalism and entertainment.

At times, Stewart and Colbert have even flirted with activism, though with mixed results. Their joint “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” received less-than-glowing reviews. McCarthy says that he attended the rally but left early, finding it to be “politically bankrupt” and a tremendous missed opportunity to “cross over into a serious political space while bringing all the humor and absurdity.” Meanwhile, Colbert acknowledged on Meet the Press that “everyone was critical of” his testimony before a Congressional subcommittee, which was intended to shine a light on the plight of immigrant farm workers.

This suggests a possible limit to their influence. Ultimately, McCarthy concludes, Stewart and Colbert are quite able to “generate political energy and rile people up,” but they generally do not “determine political outcomes.” Similarly, Cantor argues that, in terms of elections, “their effect is marginal.” To be clear, Colbert and Stewart have emphasized that they are not attempting to influence political outcomes or, as Stewart told Maureen Dowd, be “warriors in anyone’s army.” Their real power lies in their capacity to question authority and show, in Cantor’s words, “that the emperor has no clothes.”

“Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own” – Jonathan Swift

Some would argue that with their present influence, whatever its extent, come certain ethical obligations. The Daily Show may claim to be “unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy,” but media experts Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini write that even “fake news” shows should be held to some journalistic standards. Williams and Carpini complain that “The Daily Show does a much better job shining a light on the foibles of others than it does taking responsibility…for its own truth claims.”

It is difficult, though, to say exactly what sort of standards Stewart and Colbert should observe. Jeffrey Seglin, Director of the Communications Program at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, told the HPR that their “ethical standard is driven by the genre they’re working in.” Since that genre is satire, they should be afforded some “license to exaggerate and…embellish the news.” Seglin adds that the viewers, themselves, “have some responsibility to be more informed.” For example, a study published in The International Journal of Press/Politics suggested that at least some conservatives watch Colbert and fail to get the joke: they believe that he is a genuine conservative, rather than a satirist parodying conservative talk-show hosts. Seglin considers this “a problem with the viewers,” not Colbert, adding, “I don’t think there needs to be a disclaimer that says ‘this is fake news’” for a show on Comedy Central.

McCarthy broadly agrees: “I’m not sure that Stewart and Colbert should be held to the same kinds of standards as, say, New York Times journalists.” He notes that “we’re not holding the political pundits on MSNBC or Fox News, or CNN for that matter” to the traditional standards of “objectivity and ethics” either. McCarthy views this as further indication that, “the definition of what is journalism and what is entertainment [has] shifted” over the past 20 years.

Indeed, freedom from strict journalistic standards is central to the ability of Stewart and Colbert to do what they do best. Perhaps a more apt criticism is that they tend to use their comedic license as a shield as well as a sword. McCarthy notes that they, and especially Stewart, have a worrisome tendency, “when they get really sharply criticized,” to “pull back and say ‘I’m just a comedian.’” McCarthy calls this an “abdication of a certain kind of political responsibility” and argues that it is difficult for them to dodge criticism in this manner and still “be taken seriously as a political force.” Stewart and Colbert may benefit from the breakdown of distinctions between politics, journalism and entertainment, but that breakdown can be a double-edged sword: as McCarthy puts it, “it’s hard…to reestablish those lines of distinction once you’ve blurred them.”

“Satire is parody with a point” – Stephen Colbert

Heirs to a long tradition of political satire, Stewart and Colbert enjoy special license to expose the folly of society’s leaders. That said, they are also very much products of their times. Their prominence, not only as comedians but also as news sources, stands as a testament to widespread popular dissatisfaction with current politics and the mainstream journalists who cover it. They epitomize the breakdown of old distinctions between entertainment and political journalism. Even if they cannot shape political outcomes, they have considerable power to inform voters, expose and shame politicians, and increase political engagement.

With this power comes a responsibility: not a responsibility to adopt the strict and confining “balanced reporting” standards of mainstream journalists, but a duty to embrace their unique capacity to enhance political discourse without retreating, as Stewart sometimes does, behind the “I’m just a comedian” shield. Just a comedian?  When Comedy Central rivals mainstream network shows as a source of substantive news, perhaps Stewart would be better advised to shed the modesty and take a leaf from the in-character Colbert’s book. “I AM a comedian (and so can you!).”

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