Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Jon Stewart Bad for Democracy?

The Washington Post has declared that Jon Stewart and the Daily Show may be “poisoning democracy.” Why? Because by exposing the lies and contradictions of our leaders, the show makes people more cynical about politics. Well, duh. Why on earth is that a bad thing? We don’t suffer from a lack of cynicism in this country, for crying out loud, we suffer from a lack of it. The reasoning behind this criticism is hilarious.

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.

And? Where exactly is the problem? When was the last time a “hard news” program showed a montage of politicians and officials going on 15 different TV shows and using the exact same catchphrase to demonstrate that this phrase is a focus group-tested bit of spin for the purpose of obscuring the truth from the people? I’ve never seen that and I think that’s damn important. Given the extraordinary number of Americans who blindly repeat such nonsense, I think it’s a real service to an educated citizenry for this show to actually document the coordinated takeover of political discourse by marketing and PR people.

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.

When was the last time you saw a “hard news” program play videotape documenting a clear contradiction from a politician or a press secretary? It rarely happens. Surely the fact that a politician is contradicting himself is newsworthy, isn’t it? It’s newsworthy regardless of what party that politician belongs to. And the fact is, one could go on all day long listing contradictions from Bush and Kerry. How about this one from John Kerry, who is now one of the few in Congress pushing for immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Let’s compare that to what he said in 2003:

In fact, I fear that in the run-up to the 2004 election, the administration is considering what is tantamount to a cut-and-run strategy. Their sudden embrace of accelerated Iraqification and American troop withdrawal dates, without adequate stability, is an invitation to failure. The hard work of rebuilding Iraq must not be dictated by the schedule of the next American election.

Reporting that is newsworthy. Will it make Americans less likely to take the politician seriously? Good. It should. Just as the media ought to be reporting, for example, that Bush’s executive order on eminent domain conveniently came too late to keep him from making millions of dollars by using eminent domain to build a new stadium for his baseball team when he was a co-owner. Or that when he spoke out against 527 organizations during the 2004 election and went to court to stop them from buying campaign ads, he was contradicting not only his own claim that such restrictions were unconstitutional, but also his claim to be against “judicial activism”.

Bill Maher recorded an HBO special a few years ago called “Be More Cynical”. He made the same argument I’m making, that we suffer from a lack of cynicism, not a glut of it. The American people aren’t too cynical, they’re too credulous, too easily taken in by transparent shams wrapped in marketing slogans. As Maher pointed out in that special, we live in a culture where people think that Penny Marshall and Rosie O’Donnell actually shop at K-mart because they do those commercials.

We live in a country where the approval ratings of a political figure can jump 10-15% leading up to an election based on nothing but a 4 day infomercial called a convention, an event full of nothing but empty rhetoric and tired cliches. We live in a nation where almost half the population thinks the world is only a few thousand years old. We live in a nation of people who think that the fact that Madonna studies Kaballah for Dummies makes her deep, where people think Kenny G plays jazz, and where women actually compete to be Flava Flav’s girlfriend. As a nation, we aren’t too cynical; we’re too stupid.

Comments

  1. #1 Ted
    June 26, 2006

    I think much of Jon Stewart’s brand of cynicism comes from the entrenched two-party system.

    When I was younger I viewed a two-party system as superior to the one party system that many Democratic Republics had in place. And I saw multi-party systems as being less effective — they disintegrated at the drop of a hat and had to reform a working government limiting what they could accomplish. Which may be a conscious way to limit government :-)

    Unfortunately, what we got in the end, are two parties that are virtually indistinguishable on a variety of issues and are utterly corrupt because there are only two teller windows that the Abramoffs of the world need to stand in line for. And the media is complicit in this by NOT asking serious questions that endanger their access to power (which Stewart’s herd of Onion writers could care less about).

    I’ve since come to appreciate multi-party coalition of government as a more democratic ideal. They have their stupid moments as well, but people get less entrenched in those systems. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to go to a multi-party system from where we are now.

  2. #2 Technogeek
    June 26, 2006

    I’ve been following a discussion about this article elsewhere on the Internet. Someone tracked down the study and made a truly damning observation about it: the students were given a post-treatment review, but no pre-treatment. There’s no way to tell if the Daily Show made them cynical, or if they already were to begin with.

    And even with that, the Post still managed to misrepresent the study: it was only argued that the Daily Show would do this to people already inclined towards nonparticipation. Is anyone really surprised by this?

  3. #3 Left_Wing_Fox
    June 26, 2006

    I’ve since come to appreciate multi-party coalition of government as a more democratic ideal. They have their stupid moments as well, but people get less entrenched in those systems. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to go to a multi-party system from where we are now.

    Sure there is. The key is that voting methods are State’s rights, according to the constitution. Each state may choose their own methods for electing senators and representatives.

    The goal is to organize and push for changes to state election laws. Push for voting systems that allow multiple parties, such as Single Transferrable vote, Approval voting or Condorcet voting. All of these methods would allow third parties to exist without splitting the vote with their ideological cousins. These are relatively easy local changes that can have a major result nationally in breaking the two-party monopoly.

    It’s not easy, but I think it’s much more likely than making the changes at a constitutional level.

    I should note however, don’t expect to see cynicism disappear in a multiparty system. Canada, for instance, has a rich history of political satire that lambasts all parties and politicians (i.e. “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” and “The Royal Canadian Air Farce”), and a general cynicism about government in general. Fortunately, this cynicism hasn’t prevented a relatively dynamic election system. Now, if only we can reform or eliminate our senate. =/

  4. #4 DOF
    June 26, 2006

    We don’t suffer from a lack of cynicism in this country, for crying out loud, we suffer from a lack of it.

    Did you mean, “We don’t suffer from an excess of cynicism…”?

  5. #5 ompus
    June 26, 2006

    Assuming Jon Stewart has made viewers more cynical by accurately exposing the hypocrisy and manipulation by our elected leaders… So what?

    I don’t play slots because they’re rigged in favor of the house. But to separate man from money, the Casino floor is designed by masters of hypocrisy and manipulation. When you play the game, they win. I don’t play.

    And politics? When incumbents, regardless of party, are re-elected 98% of the time, is it unfair to declare the system rigged? Is it unfair to draw attention to the hypocrisy and manipulation of gerrymandered districts? So who gains by voting in a rigged election? The incumbents do…by having the voters legitimize an illegitimate process. So I don’t vote.

  6. #6 Big C
    June 26, 2006

    Ed wrote (paraphrasing Bill Maher):

    The American people aren’t too cynical, they’re too credulous, too easily taken in by transparent shams wrapped in marketing slogans.

    I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. It seems to me that Americans are both too cynical and too credulous. Rigidly partisan right-wingers are cynical of any Democrat-held positions to the point of dismissing them out of hand with no consideration, while extremely credulous of any Republican position regardless of how ludicrous. Same goes for rigidly partisan left-wingers.

    It seems to me that the author of the Post article is displaying cynicism by implying that John Stewart is “poisoning” democracy. The article implies that The Daily Show exposing the pervasive corruption of our political system would only cause people not to vote, thus destroying our democracy, rather than cause people to get upset and do something about that corruption, by participating more in the political process. Maybe, maybe not. But arguing that we should not tell people the truth about our political system “for the good of democracy” seems quite ridiculous, as Ed has pointed out (Maybe I’m straw-manning the article’s position; the author seems only to have a problem with The Daily Show‘s negative attitude toward the media and politics, not the actual content. However, as Ed pointed out, what other show dares to report on and expose the rampant hypocrisy in the media and politics?).

    Cynicism by itself isn’t the cure for credulousness (credulosity?), skepticism and critical thinking are. And no human being is immune from credulous thinking. Unfortunately, evidence seems to indicate that credulosity and self-delusion are prominent features of the human psyche. Critical thinking is a learned skill, one that must be exercised and practiced constantly. Being cynical doesn’t necessarily grant improved critical thinking skills. Of course, being credulous pretty much clearly impedes critical thinking.

    Cynicism may help foster critical thinking to a point, since a general attitude of distrust of other people means you’re less likely to be conned. But doesn’t a cynic also give too little credit to his/her fellow human beings, thinking he/she is superior to the masses? Doesn’t this lead to the credulous partisan thinking I alluded too in my first paragraph? For example, creationists are pretty cynical towards science and scientists (they’re all idiots, frauds, or closed-minded “dogmatic Darwinists”), while completely credulous towards their own and their religious leaders’ interpretations of the Bible.

    David Brin posted an interesting argument against cynicism (but not critical thinking!) on his blog a few months back.

  7. #7 Webs
    June 26, 2006

    Only an idiot or someone working for a conservative group of some kind would try to state that The Daily Show hurts Democracy. Funny how Media Matters seems to be the only group willing to do studies on Fox News. A news organization determined to get their political point across, even if it means lying or distorting facts.

  8. #8 Ginger Yellow
    June 26, 2006

    ve been following a discussion about this article elsewhere on the Internet. Someone tracked down the study and made a truly damning observation about it: the students were given a post-treatment review, but no pre-treatment. There’s no way to tell if the Daily Show made them cynical, or if they already were to begin with.

    More to the point, it didn’t even ask the eligible voters if they intended to vote! You’d think if you were interested in the effects of a programme on political participation, that would be a pretty basic question.

    From an article on the study:

    “There is something going on with regard to how viewers see candidates and how they see the process as a whole … whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, we don’t know,” Morris said. “But ‘The Daily Show’ is not a benign entity out there just entertaining.

    It’s not supposed to be a “benign entity out there just entertaining”. It’s supposed to make people angry about how debased the political discourse has become in America, within politics itself and within the media. Angry enough that they won’t take it any more. In an entertaining way.

  9. #9 Ginger Yellow
    June 26, 2006

    As Stewart himself put it, everyone seems to want the Daily Show to fit into the Leno-esque light entertainment mould of political entertainment and not rock the boat, whereas what he really wants is for the media to “stop hurting America”.

  10. #10 tacitus
    June 26, 2006

    As Stewart himself put it, everyone seems to want the Daily Show to fit into the Leno-esque light entertainment mould of political entertainment and not rock the boat, whereas what he really wants is for the media to “stop hurting America”.

    Well, to be fair, Stewart himself uses the “it’s on after South Park” defense from time to time.

    I grew up with the BBC in my living room, and since moving to the States have missed the Beeb and the way it takes on big business and bug government alike. While the BBC is not perfect, they do at least try to take their responsibility to the British public seriously and hold big business and big government to account. The fact that they are disliked by politicians on both sides of the asile speaks volumes.

    I get almost nauseous when I see pundits and anchors fawning over the sitting president of some other high ranking politician. Even supposed tough interviewers like Tim Russert seem to go limp when the opportunity presents itself.

    Here’s an example of a milder interview by Jeremy Paxman of the BBC with the US Ambassador: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/help/3681938.stm

    Oh that US officials in this country would be given as tough a time in an TV news interview.

  11. #11 Matthew
    June 26, 2006

    While I certainly don’t think Jon Stewart or anyone else without any real power is bad for democracy, I agree with the Post that it’s a bad idea to get your news from the Daily Show. Stewart picks his topics based on whether or not he can make a joke about it.

  12. #12 tacitus
    June 26, 2006

    Stewart picks his topics based on whether or not he can make a joke about it.

    The sad thing is that there’s such rich pickings to choose from.

  13. #13 tacitus
    June 26, 2006

    By the way, anybody interested in watching some great political satire should watch “The Thick of It” on BBC America. It’s about the ongoing attempts of the prime minister’s press officer to effect damage control over the bumbling antics of a government department. It’s hilarious and scarily accurate. (Be warned, though, that the language is of the strongest kind–not sure if BBC America performs any censorship in that regard).

  14. #14 Suzanne
    June 26, 2006

    I’ve been following this survey for a while, and what I haven’t seen are the studies that connect cynicism to not-voting. I’m fairly certain that The Daily Show does in fact make me more cynical, but it also makes me angry and more prone to get involved.

  15. #15 Ginger Yellow
    June 27, 2006

    Well, to be fair, Stewart himself uses the “it’s on after South Park” defense from time to time.

    Sure, but he does that when people compare him to “real” news programmes and complain that he’s biased or something similar. It’s satire – of course it’s biased. The idea that satire should be “benign” is just absurd.

    By the way, anybody interested in watching some great political satire should watch “The Thick of It” on BBC America.

    Seconded. While it was on over here it was the best thing on television. Sadly the actor who plays the bumbling minister, Chris Langham, has been arrested for downloading child porn, so it’s probably not coming back. If you get the opportunity, however, check out everything else produced by the writer, Armando Iannucci. The guy’s a genius.

  16. #16 Raging Bee
    June 27, 2006

    I don’t think Stewart’s bad for democracy, but I do think that too much cynicism is indeed a bad thing, as it leads to lowered expectations of our government, and thus increasingly worse performance by a government whose people don’t bother holding it accountable.

    The tone of political debate has become more cynical since Watergate, and have our politicians got any better as a result? Of course not: people who try to be decent and/or smart are mocked and brushed off, and shameless incompetents are welcomed and condoned with a shrug.

    If the most cynical people actively supported better parties or policies, you would have a point. But they don’t: in my experience, they either vote for the most entertaining moron, or ignore complicated public issues altogether.

  17. #17 Raging Bee
    June 27, 2006

    PS: It occurs to me that you may be confusing “cynicism” with “skepticism.” There is a difference.

  18. #18 Paul Manderbach
    July 18, 2006

    The level of ignorance in this country is astounding. We should be ashamed!

  19. #19 Paul Manderbach
    July 18, 2006

    Jon Stewart is God!! (Metaphorically speaking)
    This statement doesn’t show my ignorance, it only shows my appreciation for what he does and what he represents! There should many more like him!
    He is a True Patriot, in the order of the great founding father, John Adams!
    Long live the fighters of Liberty, free Speech, and free choice!

  20. #20 Ed Brayton
    July 18, 2006

    Paul, may I politely suggest you switch to decaf?

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