The Daily Show Scores on the Big Guns of Television

By Ralph E. Hanson
October 22, 2004
Charleston Daily Mail

Comedian and fake news anchor Jon Stewart committed a cardinal sin on CNN's "Crossfire" on a recent Friday afternoon: He told the truth.

He not only questioned the quality of cable political talk shows, he questioned whether they should exist at all.

Stewart, for those of you whose cable has been down for the last year, is the host of Comedy Central's satirical news program "The Daily Show."

Along with fake news segments, Stewart also has guests on the show -- most prominently Democratic presidential contender John Kerry.

"Crossfire," on the other hand, is a daily debate show that deals with current political issues by featuring hosts and guests from the left and right. As Paul Begala, one of "Crossfire's" liberal hosts put it, "Our show is about all left vs. right, black vs. white, paper vs. plastic, Red Sox against the Yankees."

And it's that polarizing debate that Stewart objected to during his appearance.

"I made a special effort to come on the show today because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspaper and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad. . . ." Stewart said on the program. "It's not so much that it's bad as it's hurting America."

When conservative host Tucker Carlson tried to compare the questions Stewart asked Kerry on his show with those "Crossfire" would have asked, Stewart's response was, "If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you're more than welcome to."

That is Stewart's point: A show supposedly about serious political debate is no different than a satirical comedy show. Political talks shows are staged with props and costumes to generate the highest possible level of conflict. In essence, they are the professional wrestling rings of journalism.

Stewart's central objection is that programs such as "Crossfire" and Fox's "O'Reilly Factor" are all about shouting and scoring points, not about transmitting the basic information needed to cast informed ballots on election day.

In his book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, the late Neil Postman wrote that television, by its very nature, turns everything into entertainment. Postman writes that no matter what we watch on television, "the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure."

So it should not be surprising that Stewart, as a comedian, has been acclaimed as the most important voice of political news for the younger generation.

Fox's Bill O'Reilly claims that Stewart's audience is nothing but "stoned slackers." Maybe so, but according to Nielsen Media Research, viewers of Stewart's "Daily Show" are more likely to have four years of college than viewers of "The O'Reilly Factor."

Stewart's viewers also scored better on a political knowledge test than did non-Daily Show viewers.

So how important is Stewart?

I recently searched the Lexis database of major newspapers for articles that mentioned a number of different broadcast news personalities. For the period of Aug. 15 to Sept. 15, which predates Stewart's recent Emmy award, Stewart received 58 mentions in major newspapers.

Ted Koppel, the anchor of the respected late night news show "Nightline," received only 16 mentions. NBC's Tom Brokaw got 28 mentions; Fox's O'Reilly got 34 mentions. CBS anchor Dan Rather got 78 mentions, but that was in the midst of the whole Bush memo scandal, so he doesn't count.

Only CNN's Larry King, with 70 mentions, got more newspaper attention than Stewart without being embroiled in a scandal.

Toward the end of Stewart's appearance on "Crossfire," host Tucker Carlson summed up what he really wanted his guest to do: "I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny."

Laugh, clown, laugh.

Hanson is an associate professor of journalism at West Virginia University.