The Daily Show and Political Activism

The popular debate about whether Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show is “bad for Americans” won’t go away. Indeed, worries got so big that now FOX has launched a conservative antidote, “The _ Hour News Show” which premiered this week. Now streaming on YouTube, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough ran a piece featuring Daily Show clips and two pundits debating whether “therapeutic irony is rendering us politically impotent.” Similar fears were fanned last year when news media had a fiesta with a questionable study by two academics which claimed that watching The Daily Show breeds cynicism and lowers young voters’ “trust in national leaders.” In September, The New York Times Magazine ran a savvy piece called “My Satirical Self” about a generation of satire in which Wyatt Mason describes how “ridicule provides a remedy for his rage.” In 2003 in an interview with Bill Moyers, Moyers asks Jon Stewart: “I do not know whether you are practicing an old form of parody and satireor a new form of journalism. Stewart replies: “Well then that either speaks to the sad state of comedy or the sad state of news. I can’t figure out which one. I think, honestly, we’re practicing a new form of desperation (July 2003, PBS).

But Courtney Martin’s January 7 Baltimore Sun column touches on the plaguing question of satire’s role in politics: “Satire, of course, has a long and proven history as the source of bona fide social change. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, George Orwell’s Animal Farm – all of these led to new public awareness that then led to protest, even some pragmatic reforms. Rebels distributed copies of Animal Farm, a novella satirizing totalitarianism, to displaced Soviets in Ukraine right after World War II.”

However, she laments, TDS viewers are only chatting around the water cooler.

Such claims are not only too simple, but wrong: the court jesters of our dark times translate into far more than chit-chat.

First, the quality political satire of comedians and parodists such as Stewart and Colbert give airtime-and often longer segments of airtime-to topics largely unmentioned by any other media. On February 12, for example, Colbert devoted The Word to a story buried or unreported by almost all other news: the latest Defense Department report that evidences Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith’s “pre-war report fabricating a link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda Putting AlQaeda in Iraq may have taken some imagination back then, but thanks to inappropriateness [Feith] made it a reality.” Colbert provided three-plus minutes of time to a crucial story of precisely how and who manipulated intelligence. Trust me: go google this report, and you find the briefest of coverage, beginning with a confusing and mealy-mouthed AP version, with most stories headlining Feith’s self-defense rather than the critical report.

Second, because of the fair-use shield of parody, these court jesters can report on politician’s lies and corruption, as well as launch major critiques of media and press failures to hold politician’s accountable.

Third, as my research shows, significant counterpublics have formed through web-based communities around such political material as TDS which do translate into action.

Across our forty interviews with bloggers and online video producers as part of my research project “Rethinking Media and Democracy” funded by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council, we have discovered that web-based communities sparked by political commentary like The Daily Show are vibrant and translating into action. This past week, I interviewed an established blogger who began streaming TDS clips when his Macintosh wouldn’t interface with the Comedy Central site, and decided it would be a service to other Mac users to post clips in Quicktime format. As a result, he unexpectedly began to get voluminous traffic from readers around the globe. I asked him if he thought that his site resulted in any action. It was a surprise to me to hear him report that in fact, as he learns from the ongoing conversations and comments posted on his website, that because of viewing and discussing The Daily Show many member of this progressive community have been led to activism. Another blogger was inspired to go join Cindy Sheehan’s protest in Crawford because of the conversations engaged through his Daily Show postings.

I admit that there are times when I share Martin’s worry that we are laughing our way into doomsday. As she writes, “Laughing is inherently healing, and in a time of secret government contracts and State of the Union addresses given in fake Southern accents, we all need a little relief. But like comfort food consumed night after night in place of broccoli, we are gorging ourselves on what feels good instead of processing what feels so bad – and doing something about it. Other than voting, when was the last time you performed a political act more public than sending a link to The Onion’s funniest new podcast to your old college roommates?”

But the evidence is rolling in to the contrary. Our survey of 160 producers evidences that 52 percent agree that, “My online political activity has caused me to take action in my local community (e.g., protest, boycott, etc.).” A majority, 59.5 percent, say that “My online participation in political forums has led me to join at least one political gathering or protest. Since becoming active online, 29.3% are “more active in ‘offline’ political activities,” and 63.1% “spend about the same amount of time in ‘offline’ political activities.”

The question is no longer a simple one of laughter vs. action, or online vs. offline. Similarly misleading is the headline and implication of Jennifer Earl’s commentary (February 4 B01): “Where have all the protests gone? Online”. This is simply not true. While the Internet is being used extensively for organizing, as our research shows online activists remain active offline-and more importantly, the protests against U.S. invasion of Iraq on January 27 were attended by hundreds of thousands (despite misrepresentation by hundreds of mainstream newspapers using the inaccurate AP assessment of the crowd as numbering in the “thousands”).

It’s no longer possible to separate popular perception, mainstream media agenda setting, Washington electorate decisions, and the critical force of digital dissent including satire. The most sophisticated current scholarship on satire is Paul Lewis’s 2006 book Cracking Up. Lewis describes, and my studies show as well, that The Daily Show writers (as well as most other political comedians, including Stephen Colbert) claim their agenda to be the laugh, and not politics. But Lewis offers the recent instance of the head writer of TDS countering the idea that satire “doesn’t make a difference,” citing the example of cartoonist Thomas Nast “bringing down one of America’s first entrenched political rings [William Tweed’s Tammany Hall group which ruled New York City from 1866 to 1871].”

We may not be able to trace an easy “cause and effect” (how do we even separate the producers from consumers in this golden age of user-generated content when all of us have been names person of the year by Time Magazine?). But there can be little doubt that satirists, bloggers, citizen journalists, and YouTube and other viral video producers around the world are taking action daily and dissenting from mainstream media agendas. Whether one traces the effects of Stewart on Crossfire, Colbert at the 2006 White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner roasting George W. Bush in front of the President and the world, or blogs that broke the Trent Lott or Rathergate story, the counterpublics created through digital media are far more than water cooler talk.

In 2004, Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire lambasting corporate media for failing the public good was the top-cited media event in the blogosphere. What matters is that dissenting voices are being aired through increasingly broad and multiformat channels. Corporate-owned news and papers of record are being forced to watch their step by the 24/7 surveillance of a vibrant public demanding accountability.

The comedians may claim to be only interested in the laugh. But those who watch, think critically, and take numerous forms of action do come away each night with renewed political convictions-not least of which is to question a news media that too often fails in its responsibility to speak truth to power.

MEGAN BOLER is an associate professor at the University of Toronto conducting a three-year funded study of political multimedia, satire, and digital dissent. She can be reached at: