Cynical media: Is Jon Stewart bad for democracy?

What is going on in the United States? Once — and it was not so long ago– idealism was the mark of a worthy politician (at least as far as popular films were concerned). Frank Capra, for example, gave the country iconic images of the ideal senator. Jefferson Smith, the naive country boy, reaches the senate only to discover that his idol, Senator Joseph Paine, and his ilk have betrayed every principle in favor of special interests.

Ah… the good old days! Jefferson Smith could prevail at the end because politicians could come around. They just needed a reminder. Clearly, American society was a lot less jaded and cynical than it is today, or so the story goes. But the United States was neither kinder, nor gentler, nor more naive back in the 1930s. There was considerable turmoil in the United States as the country reeled from the Great Depression. As John O. Hunter explains, throughout the 1930s Americans were concerned about “housing, education, discrimination, and unemployment” (Hunter, 1966, p. 230). Hence, questions like What America should do for the Joads? were very important.

So, why do we think that American society then had less to feel discouraged about, less to gripe about, and less to be cynical about than we do today? The answer, according to Robert Hariman, is loss of innocence:

For the past decade we have had to contend with noxious politics and irresponsible media: A relentless persecution having no possible public benefit, vicious political operatives destroying dedicated men and women with lies and more lies, and an administration using egregious deception and highly coordinated propaganda campaigns to advance policies that are fundamentally damaging to the national interest, human rights, and the democratic process (Hariman, 2007, p. 275).

Under the circumstances we need a laugh. But more importantly, we need Jon Stewart and his brand of political comedy. In American society, parody has always been a vehicle to bring serious issues to the public. In other words, political parody stimulates democracy and public discourse. It raises awareness about society’s problems that would otherwise go unnoticed, especially in light of the overwhelming amount of information that circulates every day. Accordingly, Robert Hariman asks us to see the Daily Show for what it is. Not idle and corrosive cynicism, but “a defense of democratic deliberation” (Hariman, 2007, p. 274).

Roderick Hart and Johanna Hartelius, on the other hand, take the opposite view. They see Jon Stewart’s comedy as cynical, and thus detrimental to American democracy. Using rhetorical devices like diatribes (rants deriding public figures and institutions)┬á and chreia (“statements about an incident or situation, followed by a pungent remark”), cynics like Stewart offer vacuous, self-indulgent criticism, but no alternatives or solutions.

Here is an example of a rant, by Lewis Black.

And this is an example of chreia:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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Hart and Hartelius* write that politics is a serious affair that demands seriousness:

Politics, of course, depends on more than mere attention. It depends on serious beliefs seriously pursued. Cynicism, in contrast, promotes only itself, summoning followers to abandon conventional society and its stultifying love of order, predictability, and progress (Hart & Hartelius, 2007, p. 267).

Nevertheless, cynicism is very popular. It is a mode of address that fits the generations of Americans of the television age. Television creates spectacles, superficial heroes, vapid pseudo-events (see Boorstin, “The Image”), and celebrities that fill our time, our screens, and that seep into our conversations. Jon Stewart can aptly play to us, as an audience because we are “quickly bored and often surly” and have little patience for “intractable problems” (Hart & Hartelius, 2007, p. 270). In other words, those of us who have always had television available want instant gratification. We want neat, uncomplicated endings, and we want to escape into lala-lands where we don’t have to reflect on the seriousness of real life.

Ironically, The Daily Show has a life of its own. We know that it is satire, but since it offers commentary about real events, it is taken seriously. In 2004, when Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire, co-host Tucker Carlson accused him of not asking poignant questions. To this, Stewart responded: “if your goal is to compare yourself to a comedy show you’re more than welcome.”

Tucker Carlson is not alone. Bill O’Reilly also felt the need to set the record straight. His concern? that young people in America, who make up the Daily Show’s key demographic, may believe Jon Stewart is painting an accurate picture of the country

And this is how CNN covered “the feud”

Perhaps O’Reilly is not off the mark: Did you know that, according to Time magazine, Jon Stewart is America’s most trusted newscaster? I was surprised, but only because I never did consider him a newscaster. I consider him a satirist and a political commentator. But, in terms of serving one of the key function of a free press, the Daily Show has become the watchdog of the watchdogs. Here is a good example of what this means:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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  • Hariman, R. (2007). In defense of Jon Stewart. Critical Studies in Media Communication. 24(3), pp. 273-277
  • Hart, R.P & Hartelius, J.E. (2007). The political sins of Jon Stewart. Critical Studies in Media Communication. 24(3), pp 263-272.
  • Hunter, J.O. (1966). Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle will Rock” as a Document of America, 1937. American Quarterly. 18(2). 277- 233.



* The issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication in which Hart & Hartelius, and Hariman were published recounts the mock trial of Jon Stewart, during the Annual Convention of the National Communication Association. Their comments are meant to be taken with a grain of salt.