An essay for Honors 302: Entertainment, Comedy, & Politics: it critiques the assumed historical divide between entertainment and politics, particularly on television, while arguing that embedding politics in entertainment connects it to an otherwise uninterested audience. Written 23 Sep. 2011.
Advances in and deregulation of mass media ensure that we are bombarded by a near constant stream of political messages, many of which utilize entertainment. Despite the reverence for television news anchors of the middle of the last century, the use of entertainment as a tool for political messages is not new. Still, this democratization of the mass media sphere, especially with television, can seem frightening. That fear concerns the rise of comedians such as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, the popularity of more subtly political shows such as South Park and the Simpsons, and even the transition from a wholesome Leave It to Beaver family to the diversity of Modern Family. Some argue that the loss of traditional, political-message gatekeepers will leave the American public deprived of high political thoughts and values. They suggest that as entertainment invades politics, it threatens to undermine the core democratic values ascribed to it by our political benefactors in Ancient Greece. This is not the case. Leaving aside hyperbole, the link between entertainment and politics is historical, natural, and necessary for effective democracy. This analysis will focus on television as it is the heavyweight of mass media, but most points can be generalized to other media platforms. Before addressing the value added by today’s iteration of the link, the boundaries of news, entertainment, and politics will be discussed.
Describing the above terms affords some initial points of contention. Indeed, Professors Bruce A. Williams and Michael Delli Carpini suggest that it is “impossible” to “articulate a theoretically useful definition” to distinguish between news and entertainment media, since every “substantive topic” discussed in one format appears in the other (2001, pp. 162-163). Professor Robert L. Holbert reinforces that assertion with his nine-part typology of media programming, which ranks shows based on their explicit to implicit political messages and by the primary to secondary role of including those messages (Holbert, 2005). For him, non-news shows across the media spectrum include political messages alongside entertainment. Still, rather than accept that delineating news and entertainment is too difficult to be useful, the style of comparison should be reevaluated. For the purposes of this discussion, news constitutes a process of informing an audience, while entertainment connotes anything designed for enjoyment. As such, purveyors of news can entertain as a strategy to inform their audiences, while retaining their characteristic as news. The larger question is whether political news should use entertainment, and whether other mass media combinations of politics and entertainment can be detrimental to citizenship.
The answer to the above questions is clear for some theorists. Professor Neil Postman lamented the combination of news and entertainment by suggesting that in the mid-1980s “all subject matter [was] presented as entertaining” such that serious issues were not afforded their proper attention (1985/2005, pp. 86-87). In contrast, Professor Liesbet van Zoonen’s definition of politics as a “field,” which requires both internal communication among experts and external communication to constituents, suggests that effective, external messages must be grounded in the “dominant cultural mode of entertainment” to receive audience attention (van Zoonen, 2005, p. 7). For her, it is affective intelligence that is most relevant for political action, as any issue must be connected to an emotional appeal to activate reasoning (van Zoonen, 2005). Politics constitutes the discussions, debates, legislation, and policy implementation that occur throughout government. To be effective, van Zoonen argues that a democracy must facilitate external communication that combines entertainment and those issues constituting politics to citizens across media platforms. It is not detrimental to citizenship, but rather a necessity for effective political messages to have emotional, activating connections with citizens. As to whether this development is a recent phenomenon, this discussion turns to an historical analysis.
One significant shortcoming of contemporary criticism of the link between entertainment and politics is that it fails to adequately identify a time without such a connection. Instead of specifying a period, those theorists are content to lament the current iteration of the link. Professor Robert Entman criticizes such myopia as ignoring that “political satirists have been with us for centuries” (2005, p. 57). Williams and Carpini go further and contend that it is impossible to make “distinctions between the serious and the non-serious or between the political and the non-political” as the “belief in the naturalness of those dichotomies” lies in the unnatural and ineffective “media system of the late 20th century” (2011, p. 184). That system, a relic of the Progressive Era, treated journalists as elite “gatekeepers” who presented news, first through newspapers and later on television, to the fickle masses who “required protection from the media’s propagandizing power” (Williams and Carpini, 2011, p. 164). Despite that infantilizing stance by the traditional mass news media, even during that period, Professor Jeffrey Jones notes that “the normative ideal” of the fully informed and dichotomous individual remained an “unrealistic standard” (2010, p. 25). It is unrealistic, as there are numerous demands on an individual’s free time, such that Williams and Carpini argue that politics is not a “self-contained part of public life” as “individuals are simultaneously citizens, consumers, audiences,” and more (2001, p. 161). In such a way, van Zoonen suggests that it is “not a feasible option” to “set politics apart from the rest of culture” as it will not “survive the competition for spare time” (2005, p. 3). As a result, the link between entertainment and politics has thrived in the prevailing cultural form throughout history, such that the concerted effort of the Progressive Era could never achieve its goals of total separation nor perfect citizens. Accepting the link exists and has existed, its impact must be addressed.
The deregulation of television and the development of the Internet yielded numerous avenues for political messages. In turn, the plethora of programming produced multiaxiality or the elimination of the traditional news media as a “monolithic gatekeeper” (Carpini and Williams, 2001, p. 172). Arguing that restrictive gatekeepers and limited news outlets were better for a democratic society than the widespread availability of information today is counter to democratic, pluralistic values. Still, Professor Robert Putnam derides television for producing a declining rate of social capital – needed for trust, relationships, and society – which he argues leads to significantly lower civic engagement (Feldman, 2011). In contrast, Jones celebrates media for its ability to “accentuate and perhaps even accelerate” the tendencies of “politics in postmodernity” to eschew the black-and-white structures of established parties in favor of individualized, ideological development (2010, p. 27). Instead of Tammany Hall-style identification, with single identifying characteristics associated with particular parties, van Zoonen argues that the “dissolution” of such “determinants of political preferences” mean politicians must make individualized connections with constituents (2005, pp. 58-59). Unlike Putnam’s contention that civic engagement has decreased, Jones asserts that meaningful civic engagement has evolved to equally value the development and “assertion of one’s values” and opinions (2010, p. 32). Choosing between multiple media outlets and programs to develop those opinions ensure that the public is “free to construct its own interpretation of political reality” (Carpini and Williams, 2001, p. 178). However, suggesting that people now have access to numerous media outlets to develop their personal political ideology is not sufficient for ensuring that those outlets provide a positive democratic influence.
The varieties of media platforms available from print, to online, to rallies on the National Mall are secondary to the arguably largest media source of television. On T.V., the closest entertainment programs to traditional political news are hosted by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. Professor Geoffrey Baym is quick to praise their contribution to the political dialogue, by suggesting that they are “important sources of information, discussion… and critical inquiry” (2010, pp. 5-6). That description is similar to van Zoonen’s. She presents media as “activat[ing] audiences into discussion, participation, creativity, intervention, and evaluation” (van Zoonen, 2005, p. 54). However, both descriptions contrast with Professor Roderick Hart’s contention that entertaining television breeds cynicism, encourages passivity, and make individuals feel informed, while being distracted from critical analysis (Feldman, 2011). Putnam goes further, by arguing that even though television programs once had considerable numbers of viewers, modern audience fragmentation ensures that there is no shared viewing experience (Feldman, 2011). Both individuals neglect the online message boards and social networks that create imagined communities aching for debate and speculation about a show’s purpose – just ask any Lost fan about the series’ finale. Skills honed during those debates can be applied to critically analyze political news, such that fans of entertainment programs have the “customs” crucial for democratic politics: “information, discussion, and activism” (van Zoonen, 2005, p. 63). In such a way, a more explicitly political entertainment program such as Jon Stewart can directly help to hold government accountable, while other programs promote the skills needed to evaluate the credibility of news programs and the effectiveness of government actions.
The diverse media landscape is not without critique. Postman argues that television is designed to give off “impressions” versus arguments such that “good showmanship” becomes as, if not more, important than the message (1985/2005, pp. 97-98). However, Holbert disputes this assertion and suggests that “not just news content but entertainment-based messages as well” are key for “providing compelling descriptions of a public world that people cannot directly experience” (2005, p. 437). That is similar to van Zoonen’s description of affective intelligence, and is reinforced by Jones, who suggests that fictional programs “give meaning to political action” with audiences “debating, arguing, mulling over, and working through” the issues presented (2010, p. 36). Often those issues are outside of the comfort zones that individuals experience in their day-to-day lives. Through an entertainment media lens, they can be evaluated without the uncompromising, hyper-partisan tones of strict political messages. As an example, the diverse families in Modern Family can have a positive impact on people’s view of both homosexual relationships and ones with age disparities. While selective exposure, reflecting the freedom of an individual to choose likeminded programs, may limit the reach of more overt messages, the barrage of media content ensures that positive themes can be embedded throughout. With entertainment likely to remain linked to politics, the question then remains as to whether it can or should be circumscribed.
Several of the authors discussed suggest that contemporary mass media is already serving the needs of a pluralist democracy, by encouraging individuals to develop personal political perspectives. However, Carpini and Williams worry that the “positive role” of entertainment media is tied to “little more than good intentions” (2011, p. 185). Regarding shows such as Modern Family, it appears possible that the producers and writers could have presented negative stereotypes and embedded messages in exclusive support of the traditional, nuclear family. But that is not probable. Successful entertainment media needs an audience, and wildly biased or stereotypical programming could not long survive an assault by concerned interest groups. Moreover, there are limits to society’s acceptance of the link between entertainment and politics. The American Candidate reality T.V. show, which involved a faux presidential campaign, met that limit and holds a 2.6/10 on the Internet Movie Database (van Zoonen, 2005). In such a way, the desire profits that some fear will destroy the news media, in turn inhibits media content that is beyond society’s tolerance for mixing entertainment and politics. Alongside consumer tastes, media outlets can self-police.
A benefit of the fierce competition between media outlets is that networks must distinguish themselves from their counterparts to attract audiences. Contrasting the quality of reporting of one station with another can serve to increase audience share, while the threat of critical reports from a competitor would incentivize action that corresponds to the standards for responsible news. Standards already exist. Entman defines five measures for rating journalistic activity: (1) accuracy, (2) balance of views, (3) checks on pure profit maximization, (4) democratic accountability, and (5) editorial separation (2005, p. 54). Moreover, Carpini and Williams delineate the “ethical responsibilities of fake news” as (1) transparency of sources, guests and issue selection; (2) pluralism, (3) verisimilitude or self-fact-checking, and (4) practice, such that information is provided for audiences to participate politically (2011, pp. 186-191). It is not reasonable to create a larger Federal Communications Commission to subjectively police media for every statement and show aired. Instead, entertainment outlets can and do police traditional news media by the above standards, and vice versa. A willingness to call out competitors for unsavory tactics ensures that such tactics can be discredited. Encouraging this competitive oversight does not mean that entertainment will disappear or that every important story will receive equal airtime. Rather it means that falsehoods will be reduced. The onus would remain with the viewer to continue his or her behavior as a “news grazer,” who receives information across multiple platforms, such that he or she can critically evaluate statements by multiple sources (Baym, 2010, p. 16).
The link between entertainment and politics is historical, natural, and necessary for effective democracy. Recently, the enrichment of programming following airwave deregulation and the growth of the Internet yielded a multitude of competitive media outlets as well as a new generation of citizens looking to develop personal opinions. Besides overt political programming, platforms and shows designed for entertainment-only purposes encourage the behavior necessary for critical analysis. This sea change occurring in mass media represents a shift away from treating individuals as the unsophisticated masses, who require careful, objective messages to transform them into informed citizens. Instead of infantilizing Americans, this new diversity of message outlets respects citizens for their intelligence and ability to discern, debate, and discuss the important political issues – when time permits. While this current system has different dynamics than past iterations, the dual forces of consumer taste and competitive media will prevent this iteration from extending beyond society’s limit. Policymakers should promote media competition and access to information, from network ownership to net neutrality. Future research could add additional insight to the effects of entertainment online and across other media platforms. Even so, those who criticize today’s media arrangement frivolously argue for a utopian vision of fully informed citizens or a dystopian world of an elite-controlled, censored media. Today, entertainment remains the best tool to affect emotions, and it is through emotions that individuals can listen and react to the political messages that impact them.
Baym, G. (2010) From Cronkite to Colbert: The evolution of broadcast news (pp. 1-24). Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
Delli Carpini, M. X. D., & Williams, B. A. (2001). Let us infotain you: Politics in the news media environment. In L. Bennett and R. Entman (Eds.), Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy (pp. 160-181). New York: Cambridge University Press
Entman, R. (2005). The nature and sources of news. In G. Overholser & K. H. Jamieson (Eds.), The press (pp. 48-65). New York: Oxford University Press.
Feldman, L. (2011) “A critique of entertainment as public discourse.” American University. Washington, DC. 12 Sept. 2011.
Holbert, R.L. (2005) A typology for the study of entertainment television and politics. American Behavioral Scientist, 49(3), 436-453.
Jones, J. (2010) Entertaining politics, 2nd edition. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield
Postman, N. (1985/2005). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business, 20th anniversary edition. New York: Penguin Books.
Van Zoonen, L. (2005) Entertaining the citizen. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield
Williams, B. A. & Delli Carpini, M. X. (2011). Real ethical concerns and fake news: The Daily Show and the challenge of the new media environment. In A. Amarasingham (Ed.), The Stewart/Colbert effect: The real impacts of fake news (pp. 181-192). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.