The Daily Show and Political Culture: Skepticism or Cynicism?

By Meredith Conroy

About a month ago, Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s premiere fake news program, The Daily Show (TDS), announced he would be leaving in a heartfelt “Moment of Zen.”

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Once the announcement of his departure spread, speculation around who would take over for Stewart began. But before we start talking about what’s next for TDS, I think the announcement of Stewart’s departure warrants a survey of what in particular academics have uncovered, regarding the political and cultural significance of Jon Stewart’s tenure with TDS.

Over the course of its 17 years on air, TDS has evolved in scope, popularity, and political relevance. A fact not gone unnoticed from political science, and media and communication scholars. The Daily Show has been at the center of studies interested in the changing nature of political news television programs and evolving notions of journalism, in this new age of technology, where production, consumption, and distribution of information no longer rely on an antenna and electromagnetic waves. For example, Aaron McKain explores what makes TDS different from conventional newsGeoffrey Baym tackles the meaning of TDS for broadcast journalismJamie Warner argues that TDS’s dissident humor disrupts the dominant political cultureLauren Feldman finds TDS to prompt journalists to reconsider the hard and fast convention of separating news from entertainmentAcademics in political science have also been interested in the demographic features of TDS audience. TDS audience tends to be younger, smarter, and more liberal than audiences for other cable news programs, such as The Rachel Maddow Show, O’Reilly Factor, and Hardball. Yet what is the political impact, if any, of TDS on its audience? To speculate on the effect, its important to establish what TDS brings that is distinct from other cable shows. 

What Jon Stewart does best on his show is not necessarily his takedown of political foes, or even his ongoing war with Fox News, though this is related, but instead his consistent critique of modern political journalism and news. Night after night, using carefully crafted montage after montage, Stewart lambasts the cable news networks CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, and uses their foibles to bemoan the general state of political news reporting in the US. He famously took his critique to the source, when in 2004 Stewart appeared as a guest on the now canceled CNN show, Crossfire, to plead with hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to “stop hurting America.” In this Crossfire appearance, and increasingly on episodes of TDS, Stewart is critical of our political news as “partisan,” “theater,” “hackery,” and “not honest.” 

And while this takedown of Crossfire and his other attacks on the media are hilarious and entertaining, the effect, it is speculated, may be detrimental to our democratic system, which rests on a participatory citizenry. Communication scholars aptly refer to the theory that news media hinder civic engagement (political knowledge, trust, and participation), as the media malaise. Although Pippa Norris handily debunks the media malaise, her assessment does not consider the likes of TDS, in all its mocking, satirical, sneering glory. 

In particular, given the snarky delivery, and sarcastic tone, the presumption that TDS contributes to cynicism from its viewers toward government and mainstream media seems rightly founded. Soon after the announcement that Stewart was leaving, Jamelle Boiue, a Slate staff writer, wrote a thoughtful piece, as a liberal who has enjoyed the show, but is unapologetically “thrilled” to see Stewart’s tenure end, because, 

“in the world of The Daily Show, the only politics is cable politics, where venality rules, serious disputes are obscured, and cynicism is the only response that works. Not only does this discourage people who want to make a difference–like the earnest young viewers of Stewart’s audience–but it blurs the picture and makes it hard to see when those arguments really matter.” 

Boiue goes on to note, that Stewart’s “chief influence has been to make outrage, cynicism, and condescension the language of the left.” 

Political scientists of American politics, primarily interested in the democratic health of our politics, have also speculated on the cynicism impact of TDS, and have explored this effect. Using an experimental design, Baumgartner and Norris (2006) find that TDS viewers have less faith in the electoral system and less trust in media, than viewers of CBS Evening News. The authors use perceptions of trust as a means of assessing cynicism, and conclude that TDS leads to cynical attitudes about government and media. 

Moreover, In a 2007 Critical Forum published in the journal, Critical Studies in Media Communication (v. 24, 3), the cynicism effect of TDS was put on trial. Roderick P. Hart and E. Johanna Hartelius take Stewart to task for the way in which Stewart “evades critical interrogation, thereby making him an anti-political creature” (264). Indeed, by presenting the news solo, TDS enables Stewart to dismantle his enemies and take down his opponents without any contestation or debate. Furthermore, by hiding behind his title as a comedian, Stewart shields himself from those who would criticize him for also shirking his journalistic duty. 

In this same Critical Forum, Stewart’s defense was represented by Robert Hariman and W. Lance Bennett. Hariman defends Stewart by questioning whether Stewart is in fact a cynic, and furthermore, whether cynicism is dangerous to democracy. Granting Stewart is a cynic, Hariman argues that TDS humorous cynicism is a welcome relief in a political climate that is often too serious and depressing. But it is Bennett’s defense that wins me over. Bennett suggests that it may not be cynicism that is bred from TDS and Stewart’s approach to the news. Bennett concludes his essay by noting, “people exposed to Jon Stewart do not retreat behind a smug veil of cynicism, but, instead, employ cynicism as a perspective-building took to engage with politics and civic life” (283). While Bennett doesn’t explicitly say so, what I interpret Bennett to be describing in this last passage is skepticism. Skepticism breeds doubt, whereas cynicism breeds contempt. In response to feelings of doubt or questions they may have, skeptics are likely to seek out answers. In this manner, skepticism leads to learning. In response to feelings of contempt, the cynic does nothing, but harbors negative feelings toward an object or idea. And while I may be splitting hairs, I think the key to understanding the impact of TDS, and Stewart’s time as host is whether his show encourages skepticism (of government and media), or cynicism.

Measuring political cynicism has been largely commonplace in political science scholarship. It usually takes the form of questions about trust in government; questions measuring political efficacy are also considered an effective means of capturing cynicism, where low levels of efficacy are tantamount to political cynicism. To capture internal efficacy, the ANES asks respondents to agree or disagree with these statements:

“I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the important political issues facing our country,” “I consider myself well-qualified to participate in politics,” “I feel that I could do as good a job in public office as most other people,” “I think that I am better informed about politics and government than most people”

To capture external efficacy the ANES asks respondents to agree or disagree with these statements:

 “Public officials don’t care much what people like me think,” “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does,” “Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going on”

 Of the external efficacy questions, 2 of the 3 presume support for government as a necessary condition for efficacy. In particular, question 1 assumes that people who want to influence politics care that elected officials recognize them. Yet this is counter to skeptics belief system, especially those who watch TDS, who are asked to question the validity of our media and government, through its persistent mocking of those institutions. In other words, a skeptic may not grant the necessity of attention from public officials or government to have an impact on politics. Instead, those who watch TDS may be more prone to participate in government through unconventional means. And this participatory element is a far cry from cynicism. Instead, it is motivated skepticism, and crucial to our democratic system.

Night after night Stewart sits at his desk and attacks government and media, without allowing them to respond to his criticism. Furthermore, he shields himself from any obligation by reminding us he’s *just* a comedian. And yet, I would argue that he does his audience, and our political culture, a service, because his audience is asked to question, and be skeptical of our system, and to not accept it, as a cynic would.

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of Political Science at California State University San Bernardino. 

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3 thoughts on “The Daily Show and Political Culture: Skepticism or Cynicism?

  1. Nice essay, Meredith!
    I’d like to see you do more on the skepticism vs. cynicism distinction. One is at least a potential participant, which I regard as minimally good. If the other is a political drop out, then media that encourages cynicism is antithetical to participatory democracy = bad. Media that gives folks the feeling of being pawns and helpless is destructive to democracy, and supportive of special interest domination.
    Bill Kelleher

    Liked by 1 person

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