Is Jon Stewart To Blame For Political Apathy And Voter Cynicism?
We’ll answer that high up for those who might not have time to read this entire entry:
And there are clear reasons why.
At issue is a fascinating column by Rich Morin in The Washington Post:
This is not funny: Jon Stewart and his hit Comedy Central cable show may be poisoning democracy.
Two political scientists found that young people who watch Stewart’s faux news program, “The Daily Show,” develop cynical views about politics and politicians that could lead them to just say no to voting.
That’s particularly dismaying news because the show is hugely popular among college students, many of whom already don’t bother to cast ballots.
Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris of East Carolina University said previous research found that nearly half — 48 percent — of this age group watched “The Daily Show” and only 23 percent of show viewers followed “hard news” programs closely.
To test for a “Daily Effect,” Baumgartner and Morris showed video clips of coverage of the 2004 presidential candidates to one group of college students and campaign coverage from “The CBS Evening News” to another group. Then they measured the students’ attitudes toward politics, President Bush and the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.).
The results showed that the participants rated both candidates more negatively after watching Stewart’s program. Participants also expressed less trust in the electoral system and more cynical views of the news media, according to the researchers’ article, in the latest issue of American Politics Research.
“Ultimately, negative perceptions of candidates could have participation implications by keeping more youth from the polls,” they wrote.
Etc. There’s more. The column is fascinating — and so is the study.
But it’s way off-base. And here are just a few reasons why:
- Stewart’s show is a comedic descendant of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. He and his producers just did a longer, better, more sophisticated and content-oriented version of that often-uneven SNL segment — which has run since the mid-1970s.
- David Letterman has been the most prominent practitioner of irony-as-comedy. His show debuted in the late 20th-century. Stewart did not invent irony; he has just refined it and strengthened the content-quotient (Dennis Miller used the same style on the left and later on the right, when he shifted his political orientation).
- This is NO JOKE: Talk to young people and many of them see through the hypocrisy, posing and verbal mistruths that ooze from the mouths of politicians of many orientations. In some ways, young people today are more idealistic; in others, less so than people of the Greatest Generation. But they see The Politician Without His or Her Clothes (I will bar any specific people when I think of that image, since I just ate spaghetti and meatballs).
- Today’s politicos, more and more, are not role-models — not people whom young people would like to become. The POLITICIANS by their EXAMPLES, inconsistencies and unchecked partisanship is what is creating attitudinal problems.
- So what’s with Stewart’s ratings? How many TVs tune-in? Project that onto the population or a large chunk of it. It’s a drop in the bucket in terms of the TOTAL population.
- Some in today’s talk-radio industry and the press also breed cynicism and apathy. A young person watching a screech-fest on cable TV or listening to it on the radio may find it entertaining. But it’s entertainment akin to professional wrestling: after a certain age you KNOW they don’t really MEAN what you’re seeing. And those Sunday morning talk shows? A perceptive young voter will quickly catch on to all of the seeming winks as top journalist talking heads talk about politics in terms strictly of strategy and tactics — where you KNOW you can’t take a politician’s word at face-value because everything is analyzed in terms of the ongoing political horse race and how it impacts a campaign.
So a fascinating study may show X things with its focus group.
A columnist may express concern or dismay in a fascinating column.
But, fascinating as those things are, they don’t make it so.