Jon Stewart’s Influence on Network News essay

From comedian to political iconoclast, Jon Stewart’s influence on the publics’ perception of news in general and politics specifically is as powerful as it is ironic. What started out as an approach to comedy based on satirical interpretations of such seriously-toned shows as Crossfire, The O’Reilly Factor or Hannity & Combs has become one of the most watched soft news shows for national audience, and is the most popular show with the emerging voter segment of 18 – 24 year olds, according to multiple research sources including Baumgartner & Morris (2006) and Pew (2004).

The format of the show seeks to emulate and satirize a daily news cast, anchored by serious and often self-important hosts like Bill O’Reilly for example. In satirizing daily news, Jon Stewart has opened up political discourse nationally for the common man, poking fan at and in the case of the challenge to Tucker Carlson during his famous visit on Crossfire, challenging the self-important and pompous host with making a living by promoting political divisiveness and infighting.

This direct confrontation of the more serious and often pedantic shows where pundits often look to advance their own agendas (Postman 1986) and careers as commentators, The Daily Show and Jon Stewart have succeeded in creating a harsher, more realistic, and more comedic version of political news that is for many, a better alternative than watching talking heads debate endlessly. Where The Daily Show has succeeded is in creating a mix of the comedic and political insight that viewers want.

As many researchers have said including (Jones 2005) that “Comedian-hosts have a different license to speak offer political critiques beyond the scope of wheat news and pundit political talk have previous imagined. ” The line between news analysis and comedy is constantly being crossed, and the highly successful spin-off of The Colbert Report, which is a parody of itself, is evidence that this mixture of political commentary and humor works.

Jon Stewart has revolutionized his show specifically using comedic interpretation of events and analysis that other news shows treat with pomposity, self-importance and intensity. As a result of these jabs at traditional news media, according to (Pew 2004) younger voters consider The Daily Show as their primary source of political information. The apex of this influence was seen on Monday September 15, 2003 when John Edwards, Democrat of North Carolina, announced his candidacy for President of the United States on the show.

In addition, Bob Dole has been on eight times, John McCain (R-AZ) visited six times, Joe Liebermann (IND-CT) four times, Michael Moore, five times, and Bill O’Reilly, three times. The Daily Show has become a political force due to its comedic transparency, attractiveness to young voters in the 18 – 24 age bracket, and willingness to take risks with political content for a laugh, according to (Baym 2004). The problems of the 24/7 news phenomenon that impact both hard and soft news channels have actually benefited The Daily Show.

Most typical for all-news channels are the intentional cross-over of opinion to fact and vice versa, often with news analysis being jaded more by the reporters’ or producers’ personal political views than fact. For anyone who has ever traveled outside the United States and watched CNN, Fox News or read our newspapers regarding in incident in a foreign nation being visited at the time, the bias becomes very clear. Academic critics of The Daily Show state that by capitalizing on this lack of credibility (Baumgartner & Morris 2006) that this comedy show is actually creating more disenfranchised voters than it creates.

Yet the fact remains that (Pew 2004) shows the majority of viewers do vote, well over 90%, so the point that The Daily Show’s satiric take on politics is actually healthy for American voters. Another problem of 24/7 news is freshness of content. The Daily Show through comedic license just like its predecessor Saturday Night Live, has made comedic use of re-hashed stories and flip-flopped positions of candidates, as is certainly the case during the last Presidential election when John Kerry was invited to try a flip-flop on during his visit to the show.

In planning a strategy around managing public relations through appearances of a client on The Daily Show, the fundamental truth that this is a show based around active, not passive consumers of media needs to be kept in the forefront at all times. By active, the viewers are looking for the punch line, and to be entertained first, educated second. Researchers (Elihu Katz and Jay Blumler 1974) state that audiences seek out experiences first, not just news. The fact that network television news has become so politically correct to be boring, no wonder the age demographic on these shows is in the latter 50 and 60 year olds.

The bottom line is that The Daily Show viewers are younger, more educated, with a higher than average income and more liberal than the average American according to research completed (Annenberg Public Policy Center 2004), and while Stewart did endorse Kerry in the last election (American Perspectives 2004), he does strive to bring balance to his visitors, giving actually more time in interviews to conservatives versus liberals, possibly looking for more comedic fodder in the process Baumgartner & Morris (2006).

In the context of a public relations firm putting a client on The Daily Show however there needs to be plenty of background content, both in audio and visual forms, that gives the show a platform for humor. As the Tucker Carlson incident showed, when Stewart leaves the comedic role he too becomes the object of criticism. Anyone structuring a visit to the show needs to keep that point in mind and feed the show with comedy from the client being represented. This is definitely not the show for the candidate that takes themselves too seriously.

Bob Dole is so successful on the show because even his clips evoke humor, including both his Viagra commercials and the Pepsi commercials that spoofed the originals. Self-deprecating humor that shows the true personality of the client and not just the polished professional persona is critical. The use of other forms of media to further strengthen the concept of humor being important to the visiting clients, whether they are running for office or not, is also essential.

The development of video clips, program clips, audio and even podcasts all are critical for success in this specific venue.


American Perspectives. C-SPAN. From speech for Newhouse School on October 14, 2004. Annenberg Public Policy Center. 2004. Daily Show viewers knowledgeable about presidential campaign. National Annenberg Public Policy Center 2004 Election Survey. September 21, 2004. Washington DC.