This post is a critical response to Dannagal Young’s “Lighten Up,” which is itself a response to traditional, empirical studies of satire and the effect of television show like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Young argues that previous studies finding that these two shows don’t have much of an effect on political outcomes besides an increased distrust of the government are using outdated methods and ignore the bigger picture. Instead of asking if watching “The Daily Show” increases the likelihood that a person will donate to a campaign, we should look at whether watching the show correlates with greater enthusiasm for political participation. In essence, Young argues that rather than looking at whether any one individual show can effect the results of an election, we should be more concerned about whether such shows are having a positive effect on our political discourse.
This idea of “good political discourse’ is the crux of what I would like to examine. Young briefly touches on what he defines as good political discourse, but given that his idea of it informs this entire article and much of his body of work, as well as being relatively controversial, it merits a deeper examination.
Young starts out by stating that “Our reluctance to make political discourse more accessible stems, in part, from elitist notions of who should be allowed to sit at the political table.” This is a concept that we have explored in class – that only a limited number of people are really part of the (public) democratic process: politicians, journalists, pundits, and the like. So what happens to the ordinary citizen? Young concludes that “Actual democratic discourse requires that even the cracker jacks be invited to the table.”
But how do you get an ordinary citizen to look past the elitist political actors hogging up the table space and be more than just willing, but motivated to take a seat? According to Young, the answer is emotion. “People act when they feel. If we want people to participate, we’ll need to allow, and even encourage, them to connect to politics not just through their heads, but also through their hearts.”
This is the controversy that informs Young’s perspective. What is more important for a democracy’s political discourse: emotional mass participation, or restricted rational debate? Habermas (whom Young would identify as a “Mugwump”) gave us one answer at the beginning of the course. As we have learned in history classes, our founding fathers would have sided with Habermas. Plenty of political scientists and other democracy scholars do as well. Even as they bemoan the low turnout rates for elections, they also take a critical look at just how informed these citizens are. The big bad word is “partisanship” and the high aspiration is “objectivity.”
Nobody could argue that John Stewart or Stephen Colbert are objective commentators. But their goal was never objectivity in the first place. If I had to make up a mission statement for these satirical shows, it would be: “Get people to voluntarily sit down and watch a show that asks them to take a critical look at the news, question the actions and goals of political actors, and seek out more information to form an educated opinion.” Turns out that getting people to laugh is the sugar that gets the medicine of critical thought down.
As Young acknowledged at the end of the paper, satirical commentators like Stewart and Colbert aren’t the final answer. They don’t make the news, they just pick out which parts are worth mocking. Journalists still do difficult and integral work every day. The decline of investigative pieces and foreign correspondents has more to do with budget constraints and corporate goals than a moral failing of those who do the hard work at news outlets. The networks desperately want people to consume the news – but the solution they reached only lowered the standard down to the perceived “lowest common denominator” of the masses. As Young argues, shows like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” instead seek to raise the political proficiency of the masses to a level that they can understand the conversations at the elite political table. Colbert spent months educating the public on just how Super PACs work and why Citizens United was a terrible decision.
The answer as always, is somewhere in the middle, between the standard newscast and the comedic talk show. “Lighten Up” was written in 2013, and that middle road was nowhere to be found. But a year later, we have made significant progress with a new show that has its roots in “The Daily Show” but with an investigative twist. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” just concluded its first season, but it’s shaping up to look a whole lot like the answer Young was searching for. The satirical news comedy to a step towards the nightly newscast. Now it’s time for traditional journalism to take their own step forward, towards the very shows that have mocked them. By meeting in the middle, we can slowly build a road to a level of political discourse that is both more inclusive and more informed, with participants that are both enthusiastic and skeptical.
YOUNG, DANNAGAL G. “Lighten Up. (Cover Story).” Columbia Journalism Review52.2 (2013): 26-32. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.