Theses Doctoral

Satire as Journalism: The Daily Show and American Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century

Cutbirth, Joe Hale

Notions of community and civic participation, and the role journalism plays in establishing, reinforcing or disrupting them, have been part of American life since the early days of the republic. Equally American, and closely connected with them, are the ideas that our public institutions and elected officials are appropriate targets for both journalistic scrutiny and comedic satire. Press and speech protections that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Constitution have served journalists and satirists - and those who work both camps, such as Ben Franklin, Mark Twain and H.L Mencken - during critical times in our history. Indeed, the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, public policy and popular culture, is not a new phenomenon. Yet, re cent concerns that journalism is being subsumed within the larger field of mass communication and competing with an increasingly diverse group of narratives that includes political satire are well-founded. Changes in media technology and acute economic uncertainty have hit traditional news outlets at a time when Americans clearly want a voice they can trust to challenge institutions they believe are failing them. And during the first decade of the twenty-first century, none has filled that role as uniquely as Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on the Comedy Central Network. When Time recently asked readers to identify "the most trusted newsperson in America," Stewart was the runaway winner. That matched an earlier survey by the Pew Center in which Stewart tied Brian Williams, Tom Browkaw, Dan Rather and Anderson Cooper as the journalist respondents most admire. Scholarly work on Stewart typically builds on surveys that show young adults get political information from his show (Pew, ANES). It also challenges his frequent claim that he is nothing more than a stand-up comedian peddling satire, and it argues that his shtick, which he calls "fake news," is actually a quasi-journalistic product. This study moves beyond those issues by reviving questions about the role news media play in creating community. It applies research though the method of the interpretive turn pioneered by James Carey, and challenges the notion that Stewart's viewers are no more than fans who tune in to him as isolated individuals seeking entertainment. It argues that they seek him out because the para-political talk he offers helps them connect with a larger community of like-minded fellows. It draws on Mills' distinctions between mass media and public media, and it uses Freud's interpretation of jokes as a vehicle to address ruptured relationships and wish-fulfillment to examine the demand for a public conversation lacking in the news offered by aloof network anchors who became the faces of broadcast journalism during the latter part of the twentieth century. Finally, it considers the broader implications this nexus between media satire and news reporting - and the communities that are building around it - has for journalism and its traditional role in our participatory democracy. Research for this study, especially ideas and perceptions about how mainstream media work, is grounded in my own professional experience of fifteen years as a daily newspaper reporter, political writer and press secretary in three major political campaigns. Ideas and observations about stand-up comedy come from a year-long ethnography of The Comedy Cellar, a stand-up club in Greenwich Village known for political humor, from numerous visits to tapings of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Tough Crowd, and from interviews with a number of stand-up comedians (apart from the ethnographic work) and writers for those shows. Ideas about the interplay between traditional journalism and so-called "fake news," the narrative offered by Stewart and others, come from interviews with roughly a half-dozen nationally recognized journalists who reported on the 2004 presidential campaign. A significant amount of archival research in the popular press - specifically newspapers and news magazines - was necessary because it is a large repository for background into Stewart's professional life and training, and that is essential context for a specific dialogue about the changing landscape of American journalism. Finally, impressions and findings about Stewart's audience and the Americans who are increasingly turning to satire as a vehicle for information to locate themselves in our participatory democracy came largely from observations and interviews conducted in Washington D.C. for four days before, during and after the Rally to Restore Sanity. Early scholarship on the increasingly complex relationship between satire and traditional journalism has focused on the satirists and attempted to define their narratives as something more than comedy - some type of popular journalistic hybrid or emerging narrative that is a new form of journalism. This study acknowledges that debate but moves beyond it. In fact, it is grounded in the idea that although the television shows are new, there is nothing new about satirists using the media of their day to challenge powerful institutions, including public office holders. Instead, it approaches the rise of these satirists by asking what is happening in America that is causing citizens to turn away from traditional sources of news and information in favor of the narratives they offer. It examines the likelihood that the popular demand for Stewart's narrative signals a larger shift in the way Americans think about news and where they go to get it - away from institutional journalism and its longstanding ethos of objectivity and the authoritative voice and toward more independent voices that essentially return to iconic ideas of the press as a tool for building community and enabling conversations between publics rather than acting as the mass medium it did in the latter part of the twentieth century.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Gitlin, Todd
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 17, 2011