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.