Our generation has discarded the traditional evening news for a variety of nontraditional news sources. News websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other digital sources are now the primary news source for 71% of Americans aged 18-29 according to the Pew Research Center. And when my peers do get their news from television, it’s often not from the traditional Big Three: ABC, CBS and NBC. Instead, it’s from people like Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. Why?
Increasingly, news and entertainment are merged into a new genre: infotainment. This phenomenon is not new. Thirty years ago, Neil Postman argued in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business that getting news from entertainment sources had significantly altered America’s public discourse for the worse. In this “age of show business,” the audience’s need to be entertained by watching the news changed what was on the news.
While Postman does not have a problem with the entertainment culture per se, he does have a problem when we try to garner serious information from these entertainment sources. Perhaps the best example Postman points to is how we select presidents. In order to become president, one must look good on television, a trait that has nothing to do with their ability to lead the country.
Stewart’s The Daily Show has followed a different track from the traditional American news sources that are overrun with “soft news.” The Daily Show began as an entertainment program to poke fun at the day’s news. Now, many of my peers first learn about some of the issues Stewart uses in his opening monologue from Stewart. The purpose of the show is to entertain, yet The Daily Show now serves as an information outlet for younger Americans.
This should not be surprising. Who would want to watch most American news channels anyways? They are sensationalist when reporting the stories they deem important, and otherwise focus on soft news and lifestyle features. Talking to international students at Swarthmore about the state of American news is telling. I have heard American news called everything from “not news” to “crap.” Younger viewers are choosing to stay away from mainstream news for infotainment since most would rather be entertained anyway, not have to sit through the disgrace that has become American morning and evening news.
Is this trend a net negative for public discourse? Viewers tuning into The Daily Show at least know that they are getting a biased, comedic take on the news, not hard-hitting and factual reporting.
This is the view I held up until two weeks ago when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R-CA) joined Stewart for an interview. Stewart has been extremely critical of the administration for its handling of the health exchange website, an understandable position for a frustrated liberal who clearly wanted the system to work. So, I was not surprised for Stewart to make Pelosi answer for that. But what he did next was extraordinary.
Stewart asked Pelosi a series of questions about the “revolving door,” without using the term. Trying to get an answer from the Speaker, Stewart suggested that perhaps the problem with many government programs is that the current system has the companies bidding for government contracts using lobbyists who previously worked on Capitol Hill to do the bidding for them. Smaller companies that might be able to do a better job but cannot afford to lobby Congress are shut out of the process.
Once Stewart realized Speaker Pelosi would not give a straight answer, he asked Pelosi the following: “Is there a corruption in the system that needs to be addressed to give us the confidence that moving forward we can execute the programs better?”
Pelosi replied that she did not believe there was corruption and denied that many of her past congressional advisors now work for corporations like Boeing. The veracity of Stewart’s claim has since been verified and confirmed by the Washington Post, showing that Pelosi either lied or misled the audience. She clearly was not expecting such a difficult question from Stewart.
Pelosi’s blaming of the executive branch for the “revolving door” has also since been questioned. A comparison done by political scientists Tim LaPira and Herschel Thomas III and published on the Monkey Cage blog found that in a sample of “1,600 randomly selected registered lobbyists” the duo took “more than three-fourths of the sample have worked in Congress.”
Such a discussion is what we should expect from a Sunday show like Meet the Press. Instead, all of the above news came out of an interview Pelosi did on a comedy show hosted by a liberal Democrat who shares Pelosi’s views.
This is not a unique instance of Jon Stewart asking tough questions and making political figures uncomfortable. After all, Stewart has hosted political figures from both sides of the aisle, not giving any side a pass.
While I disagree with Stewart on most issues and oscillate between appreciating his critiques and being outright annoyed, he now occupies an important niche in entertainment programming that cannot be ignored.
Have we reached a point where hard news programs will go away within the next generation? Have we completely given up on hard news, leaving entertainers to ask politicians the difficult questions? If so, we should applaud Jon Stewart for doing what the traditional news media often does not — ask the tough questions.