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Jon Stewart’s Lesson: Fact-Based Political Critique

An essay for Honors 302: Entertainment, Comedy, & Politics: it critiques the stated objectivity of the news media, and assesses the value provided by Jon Stewart’s subjective interview style. Written 5 Oct. 2011.

Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, critically engages guests in a style, which contrasts the purportedly objective interviews hosted by mainstream journalists. Still, the reach of Stewart’s new journalism is finite. Professor Dannagal Young admits that less than five percent of Americans watch The Daily Show (2008, p. 256). However, Professor Geoffrey Baym cites the emerging “generation gap,” of 18 to 29 year olds, who favor satirical alternatives to traditional news, as indicating that Stewart’s journalism is here to stay (2005, p. 260). That trend was recently discussed by American University undergraduates Todd Carney and Melissa Chang, who questioned whether Stewart’s style of “challeng[ing] both sides equally” could still “provide a balanced view,” and whether there are any “risks” for a brand of journalism that eschews the objectivity standard (Carney & Chang, 2011). This analysis contends that there is need for a shift towards Stewart’s standard, as the objectivity of today only encourages imbalance, which favors the spokesperson with the simplest, repeated, and unquestioned talking point. However, such a shift recognizes that Stewart’s role as a comedian affords him liberties with both his opinions and questions that would be inappropriate for mainstream journalists. Before addressing lessons from Stewart’s style, objectivity in journalism will be reviewed.

Objectivity is a long-revered standard of journalism, which is lately receiving some criticism. As a standard for interviews, it mandates that journalists facilitate the presentation of an ideological balance of newsworthy opinions without inserting their own into discussions. Professor Young critiques this standard as promoting an atmosphere where “making allegations – no matter how false – become as good as fact” (2008, p. 246). For her, the failure of journalists to analyze the political talking points offered by guests permits misleading statements to thrive and gain traction with audiences. Delving into a guest’s response to encourage elaboration or a hearty defense is often avoided, so as to excise the journalist’s opinion from the interview or discussion. Furthermore, Baym notes that attempts to host guests with opposing opinions often encourages “trite verbal combat,” as each spews uninterrupted talking points (2005, p. 271). For him, engagement by journalists would promote meaningful discussion among guests, as they would be forced to defend their stances. Although both Baym and Young criticize objectivity as practiced, true objectivity could ease their concerns. Such objectivity requires judgment on pre-packaged responses, albeit fact-based and free from personal opinion. Journalists who engaged in fact-based judgment could objectively ascertain the “underlying truth-value” of statements, while avoiding the pitfalls of present “dispassionate observation” (Young, 2008, p. 246 & Baym, 2005, p. 265). For his part, Stewart promotes unabashed critical engagement, which at times can diverge from true objectivity through his opinion, an acceptable allowance given his role as a comedian.

Despite his use of comedy, interviews hosted by Stewart display a standard of challenging opinions, no matter the guest’s stature. Indeed, Baym notes that Stewart utilizes “subjective interrogation,” such that an individual’s credentials are not treated as a guarantee for factuality or consistency, a common pitfall of mainstream, objective journalism (2005, p. 265). That interrogation promotes fairness in opportunities for guests to present their ideas and arguments. Comments are critically assessed, as informed by Stewart’s opinion, but as grounded in fact. Through that style, Stewart can still provide balance, by denying the “legitimacy of arguments that are clearly indefensible,” while ensuring that rigorous debate can ensue between serious, reasonable points of policy contention (Young, 2008, p. 246). Baym celebrates such interviews, as their “open conversation can provide the legitimate foundation for governance” based on passionate, but “honest” debate (2005, p. 272). However, Carney and Chang raise the possibility that certain individuals, in particular Senator Kerry and Representative Bonilla, could be at risk for variable treatment by Stewart, which could unfairly undermine their policy opinions (2011). Yet, Stewart has demonstrated a commitment to providing both an open platform and sufficient time for individuals to discuss their stances. Indeed interviews often comprise half the program (Baym, 2011, p. 270). As regards the 2004 soft ball questioning of Kerry, the show was internally consistent since the questions regarding his war record allowed the senator to confront the objectivity which had given considerable credence to unfounded allegations. As for Bonilla, Baym notes his refusal to speak beyond his “talking points,” which naturally lead to tougher questions in an attempt to push the guest into a more serious discussion (2005, p. 272). In lieu of analytically meaningless, objective interviews, Stewart’s style consistently promotes reasonable discussion with critical, but fair treatment of ideas and guests.

The preceding analysis does not suggest that The Daily Show is the pinnacle of journalism. Indeed, it downplayed Stewart’s role as a comedian as well as the inclusion of guests who are not politically relevant figures. However, traditional journalists should follow elements of the interview example set by Stewart. Instead of accepting talking points as sufficient answers, interviewers should push guests to delve deeper into their beliefs. That would require journalists to substitute the present objectivity for questioning that can evaluate an opinion’s basis in fact. To be sure, such fact-based critiquing does not require excessive opining by the journalist. Still, audiences would be treated to richer discussions, which explore informed opinions regardless of the party or person. A sea change will take time, but the evident disinterest of younger generations has the potential to lead the ever budget-conscious, mainstream news media to incorporate Stewart’s formula of critical engagement so as to entice a new audience.

References

Baym, G. (2005). The Daily Show: Discursive integration and the reinvention of political journalism. Political Communication, 22(3), 259-276

Carney, T., & Chang, M. (2011). “The daily show: holding the media and politicians accountable.” American University. Washington, DC. 3 Oct. 2011.

Young, D.G. (2008). The Daily Show as the new journalism. In J.C. Baumgartner & J. S. Morris (Eds.), Laughing matters: Humor and American politics in the media age. New York: Routledge.

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