Perhaps it’s the iron-gray hair above his ears—it assures us he’s wise for his years. Or maybe it’s that straight-laced suit and tie he dons during every show—it that tells us he can be trusted.
It might just be that pseudo-serious look he wears as the intro music for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart blares in the background, but the popular “fake news show” on Comedy Central and its host Jon Stewart have certainly gained quite the reputation in recent years.
From his infamous “rivalry” with Stephen Colbert (the host of spin-off The Colbert Report) to his “Rally to Restore Sanity,” Jon Stewart has fashioned for himself a persona that is undoubtedly recognized for its wry, tongue-in-cheek humor.
But lately, it appears as a result of increasing mistrust and skepticism of traditional news sources, shows like Stewart’s and Colbert’s are beginning to be recognized for more than their puns and gimmicks; they’re starting to become bona fide sources of real news. Satirical news parody shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report have evolved from the realm of mere entertainment and have traversed into the world of international, political, social and economic discourse.
The hosts of these shows, ostensibly “pundits” on a mock news show, have crossed over to the side of “real” news media and have become—in many ways—a more trusted news source than traditional broadcast and print sources. Strangely (or perhaps not-so-strangely, considering the quality of news reporting today), that’s not so difficult to believe.
In 2009, when Time Magazine asked America who they thought the most trusted newscaster was after the death of Walter Cronkite, with 44 percent of the votes, Jon Stewart beat out Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News and Charlie Gibson of ABC World News.
That’s interesting, considering he isn’t even really a newscaster, but an entertainer and comedian. Right?
While some would argue these shows are more palatable to the young, hip, largely liberal crowd (I can’t recall ever hearing a conservative sing the praises of Stewart or Colbert), according to a PEW Research Center done in 2002, “among the programs regularly cited as a rising source of political information is Comedy Central’s mock news program “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (“The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism,” Geoffrey Baym, 2005).
Video clips from their shows are posted and reposted on Facebook, accompanied by captions and comments raving about their sharp wit and cleverness on topics ranging from the immigration debate to the Park 51 Mosque Controversy.
But it’s not just the masses that are catching on. Aside from popular support for the show as a legitimate source of news information, it has garnered critical acclaim as a credible and worthy news show, winning a Peabody Award and being nominated for TV’s “Best Newscast” by the TV Critics Association back in 2004 (Baym).
Precisely what is it about the “Stewart/Colbert effect” that, at face value appears to be lowbrow comedy, but actually ends up coming across as intellectual, critical and analytical? Geoffrey Baym, Ph.D. and author of From Cronkite to Colbert, offers an explanation.
Based upon the assumption that these news satire shows are primarily parodies of traditional news shows, “the parody pieces may generate a laugh, but their deeper thrust is subversion, an attack on the conventions and pretensions of television news” (Baym).
In a very concerted effort, the shows are targeting those traditional news shows and parroting their—dare I say it—pretension, self-aggrandizement, and oft-times narrow-minded biases.
Nearly every moment of these shows is dedicated to bringing to light the absurdity, ignorance, and superficiality of many news shows.
In an effort to point out folly and ignorance that has pervaded mainstream media, essentially measuring up to “shallow infotainment to try to ensure ratings points, The Daily Show offers instead a version of news that entertains,” according to Baym.
The show’s host has garnered an influential following based upon this trust between the show and its viewers, the understanding that as comical as things become on the show, under all the mock pretensions, there always remains a kernel of truth to be gleaned.
Perhaps the only person to surpass veteran Jon Stewart’s newsworthy influence is his counterpart Stephen Colbert, who has in recent years shot up unprecedentedly in popularity.
The apparent ultra-conservative, Colbert and his show have also enjoyed a similarly positive reception amongst most Americans.
But what really tipped the scales, what truly illustrated his power, influence, and clout was when, in September 2010, Stephen Colbert actually testified for Congress on behalf of migrant farm workers, according to NBC News.
After having spent one day working as a farm worker, Colbert offered a sincere testimony in support of the farm workers, while still injecting his well-known humor and infamous deadpan satire.
It was just what it appeared to be: a celebrity attempting to raise awareness and support for a worthy cause, but it was inherently blurring the lines between a fictitious television show character and the reality of his testimony.
In a world where the “real” news source is dismissed and the “fake” news source is not just trusted, but avidly followed, what does this say about our society and our ability to internalize information?
How reliable are our traditional news shows? Are we moving in a new direction in how we gain and interpret our news information?
And if so, is it a good one?
MADIHA SHAHABUDDIN is a third year Political Science major at the University of California, Irvine
Photo courtesy of Google Images