Photo: Michael Nagle for The New York Times

By: Zach Freshwater

Can comedy shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart actually have an effect on the way news is produced? I say they can.

There’s no doubt that both the Colbert Report and The Daily Show criticize bad reporting, but an article by Lisa Colletta in The Journal of Popular questions the efficacy of each program. Colletta analyzed the use of irony in the two shows and argued that though each show provides deep media criticism, neither are necessarily efficacious. I disagree.

Colletta argued that because they appear on television, the shows’ effectiveness is compromised on principle. She explains that current postmodernist television is characterized by a subjectiveness and a foundation in opinionation that innately reduces program credibility. In her argument, shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report may be criticizing the subjectiveness and ineffectiveness of media outlets, but they are doing so on an actual media outlet. She argues that their efficacy is diluted because they exist on the medium they are criticizing.

Colletta’s article also specifically criticizes the use of parody on The Colbert Report. She claims that viewers often are unable to process Colbert’s mimicry of Bill O’Rielly because he portrays him so accurately. According to Colletta, viewers may laugh at Colbert’s program, but their laughter is recurrently misdirected. She states that viewers pick up out the humor of his outlandishness, but not at his criticism. Because of this disconnect, Colletta argues that Colbert’s program becomes more of an entertaining parody than an efficacious media critique.

When it comes to Jon Stewart’s program though, Colletta leaves a bit more room for potential efficacy. She explains that The Daily Show focuses more on direct irony- unlike Colbert, Stewart uses irony to outright criticize journalists. She claims the directness of his criticism provides potential for efficacy, but still falls short. According to Colletta, in the end, viewers are laughing at Stewart. Though he is presenting promising and funny criticism, she explains that he is making his audience laugh, and that when audiences laugh, they lose sight of Stewart’s potential for efficacy. She argues that humor lifts the necessity to consider reason, and while viewers might take his claims seriously, their potential to act on those claims is innately reduced because of the presence of humor.

While I believe that many of Colletta’s arguments have solid logic, I don’t agree with her overall claims. I think that both shows have the potential to and do influence news programming. Yes, Stephen Colbert’s dedicated mimicry of conservative pundits may go over some viewers’ heads, but I think his show is still influential. Regardless of whether or not an audience member understands the irony behind every one of Colbert’s statements, they still understand that he is a parody. He is outlandish, and almost any viewer can grasp that. By seeing a show like The Colbert report, audiences are given the opportunity to view the expanding punditry of news sources.

In regards to Colletta’s denouncement of Stewart’s efficacy, I wholeheartedly disagree. I realize that Colletta’s focus was on media irony and that was how she evaluated program effictiveness. However, I think that the irony in The Daily Show is effective. Stewart recurrently points out embarrassing moments in news production. He has been on the air for over ten years now, and the media has noticed. During an interview on NPR, Brian Williams said he always has The Daily Show in the back of his mind.

“On a night to night basis, what Jon does is hold our feet to the fire, we in the new media, its healthy and helps us,” Williams said. “When words are about to pass through your lips that you can envision making a damn fine clip on The Daily Show that night, try another chain of words, try another way of putting it.”

This is Jon Stewarts efficacy. Brian Williams is one of the most well known reporters on network television and he weighs his actions against the power of The Daily Show.

So what does this mean for political communication? In his book, Governing with the News, Tim Cook argues that the media make up a fourth wall of US government. According to Cook, newspapers and journalists are a social institution that must provide the public with important political information. He explains that journalists have interacted with government for centuries. Because of these interactions, Cook argues that the media have developed an important set of organizational regulations that ground them as a governmental institution. Among these organizational standards is an understood need for objectivity. Cook explains that journalism is founded in the idea that journalists have a degree of autonomy within a prism of needed news values, objectivity, and credibility. It is because of this objectivity and credibility that I think shows like Colbert’s and Stewart’s are needed. These programs provide criticism. They are two of the only sources that fight back against a growing subjectivity in media production. An article by Kevin Barnhurst explained that even the revered, National Public Radio has experienced a growth of personal analysis by journalists.

The Daily Show and The Colbert provide a platform for media criticism. They are two of the only shows on network television that night after night, provide both criticism of both the politics and media. They are a needed component to continue what Cook describes as an important political institution. Journalists are charged with providing citizens with needed political information, and these shows push them to follow this charge.


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