Jon Stewart: Enemy of Democracy?
Ordinarily, I would recommend all visitors to the Island watch last night's episode of The Simpsons, which parodies the Scopes Monkey Trial. In end, Homer saves the day, shores up the theory of evolution, and puts the final nail in creationism's coffin by demonstrating that he's the missing link. But after reading a new study that suggests political parody could actually be bad for us, I'm afraid Matt Groening might be doing more harm than good.
I'm joking, of course. But let's consider that study, anyway. "The Daily Show Effect: Candidate Evaluations, Efficacy, and American Youth," was produced by Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris of East Carolina University. (That's in Greenville, N.C.) Instead of the Simpsons, the researchers brought their PhDs in political science to bear on the sociological effects of Jon Stewart's late-night skewering of current events. After studying what happens when young adults watched coverage of the 2004 presidential election, the concluded that
exposure to The Daily Show's brand of political humor influenced young Americans by lowering support for both presidential candidates and increasing cynicism.The study, which appears in this month's edition of the journal American Politics Research (Volume 34, Number 3), compared what happens to the general outlook of college students after watching an eight-minute clip of Daily Show fake-news coverage of the 2004 election, or a comparable series of items from CBS News. A third group watched nothing. Then everyone was surveyed for their attitudes on things like faith in the electoral system and trust in the media.
Some notable findings:
Participants were asked to agree or disagree with the statement "I have faith in the U.S. electoral system" ... participants exposed to The Daily Show condition were significantly less likely to agree with the statement. When holding all other variables in the model constant, exposure to The Daily Show caused a 23% increase in the probability that a participant would disagree that he or she has faith in the electoral system.The more youths watch Jon Stewart, then, the less they think of politicians. And this, say the researchers, is important because "young people are more impressionable ... and thus more prone to any adverse effects The Daily Show might have." Watching Leno or Letterman, or other late-night talk shows doesn't produce similar results. Indeed, "no other news source drives cynicism toward the candidates and the political system more than The Daily Show" and "negative perceptions of candidates could have participation implications by keeping more youth from the polls."
No such significant relationship existed for those who watched election coverage on CBS Evening News.
Exposure to The Daily Show does indeed seem to generate increased cynicism toward the news media. Again, this relationship did not exist among participants exposed to CBS Evening News.
I don't have too much problem with the study's methodology or the idea that too much cynicism isn't good for democracy. But I wonder how important the Daily Show really is. According to the good people at Nielsen's, a typical episode draws about 1.3 million viewers. The audience for the CBS News is an order of magnitude larger. Collectively, the three old-fashioned networks nightly newscasts have about 30 million viewers.
Combine those numbers with the unfortunately reality that college students don't show up in large numbers at the polls in the first place and it's hard to see why we should care all that much about one satirical program on the Comedy Channel. I wish more people were watching, but they aren't.
Baumgartner and Morris also offer some observations that seem to undermine their thesis. For example, consider the discussion about something they call "internal efficacy," which they define as the ability to make sense of things. Among the questions put to the participants in the post-viewing survey was:
"Sometimes politics and government seems so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on" (1 = strongly agree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 5 = strongly disagree; higher values indicate higher internal efficacy). The results indicate that the effect on internal efficacy is positive for The Daily Show and suggests that even though The Daily Show generates cynicism toward the media and the electoral process, it simultaneously makes young viewers more confident about their own ability to understand politics.The authors explain away this interpretation by alleging that
the Daily Show's coverage simplifies politics for its audience in a humorous manner. The complexities of politics are exposed as a function of incompetent leaders, not an incompetent public. Political humor also simplifies political reality because confusing counterarguments on issues and events are largely ignored.The National Annenberg Election Survey of 2004, however, shows that Daily Show "viewers are, on the whole, more interested and educated than their counterparts." To be fair to Baumgartner and Morris, they acknowledge that fact. But I find it hard to reconcile the idea that viewers only think they understand politics better because the material they're watching is overly simplified with the fact that those same viewers are better educated than non-Daily Show fans in their slice of the demographic pie.
Furthermore, who says the CBS News doesn't overly simply its coverage, confuse political arguments or ignore significant events? I think I could make a solid case that my favorite regular Daily Show segment, This Week in God, offers a more nuanced and objective rendering of religious current events than does any of the big networks.
(Plus, This Week in God is very, very funny.)
Finally, the authors make what seems to me a convincing argument in support of Jon Stewart's positive impact on American democracy. (First, a definition: "external efficacy" is defined as "beliefs about the responsiveness of governmental authorities and institutions to citizen demands"):
Citizens who understand politics are more likely to participate than those who do not. Moreover, the increased cynicism associated with decreased external efficacy may contribute to an actively critical orientation toward politics. This may translate into better citizenship, because a little skepticism toward the political system could be considered healthy for democracy.And with that I whole-heartedly agree. A little skepticism is always a good thing. So what if Daily Show fans had negative opinions of both Kerry and Bush? I'd be worried about anyone who wasn't at least somewhat disappointed in the options available in 2004. If anything, we need more, not less, of the Daily Show's brand of skepticism of the political status quo.