Sept. 17, 2004 — Depending on the turnout at the polls this November, it may be one of the more important stories of the 2004 campaign: Increasing numbers of young prospective voters turning to late-night comedy television shows to get their election news.
The trend, detailed in a January report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, challenges the traditional definition of news and points to shifting political and cultural perceptions.
What is news has traditionally been decided by trained professionals who gather facts and attempt to present balanced, objective stories. Late-night television and comedy shows subversively spin the news with sarcasm and satire, creating what has become a critical source of information for young Americans.
According to the Pew report, 20 percent of Americans between 18 and 29, "by far the hardest- to-reach segment of the political news audience," regularly get campaign news from the Internet and 21 percent get election news from shows such as "Saturday Night Live" and the "Daily Show."
But does it inform?
“For Americans under 30, these comedy shows are now mentioned almost as frequently as newspapers and evening network news programs as regular sources for election news,” the report said. (“Saturday Night Live” is broadcast on NBC; MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
But late-night television's power to inform can be weak. The Pew study found that only 30 percent of young Americans can identify Wesley Clark as the Democrat who was once an Army general, and only 25 percent know that Richard Gephardt was once House majority leader.
“People who say they regularly learn about the campaign from entertainment programs are among the least likely to correctly answer these questions,” the report found.
Part of the meal, not the whole thing
That's one reason Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, cautions that a steady diet of late-night fare leaves a lot to be desired. “If late-night comedy is the only place you're getting civic information and information on politics, that's a bad thing, pure and simple,” he said.
“But if it's one of your diverse sources, then it can be a good thing. Some of it borders on decent political reporting. The most obvious is Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’ — they're doing the kind of things in jokes that CNN and CBS ought to be doing."
“Actually, when it's done well, comedy in this country can become a counterbalance to journalism, like journalism is a counterbalance to government,” Thompson said. “They call journalism the fourth estate. We could call comedy the fifth estate.”
“Political pundits are saying President Bush has made gains in two key states: dazed and confused” — David Letterman
The ‘Fahrenheit’ factor
Movies are another source of populist political perspective. This year documentaries like “Control Room,” “The Corporation,” “Uncovered: The War on Iraq” and Michael Moore's controversial “Fahrenheit 9/11” have had a powerful impact on the political debate.
For Thompson, “Fahrenheit,” still in some theaters months after its June theatrical release, points to the potency of the entertainment factor in American politics.
“There are more occasions when people were laughing at the film than those when people were gasping or crying," Thompson said.
“It's really a comedy. Wherever one places that movie, it was certainly engaging political issues, but it was doing it more in the vein of late-night comedy than in the vein of the news,” he said.
Politics consumed by culture
For John M. Orman, a professor of politics at Fairfield University in Connecticut, the trend is another example of how entertainment and journalism have become deeply entwined.
“The way we covered politics over the last 15 years or so has changed," said Orman, co-author of “Celebrity Politics”.
“We cover politics as entertainment,” Orman said. “Used to be the political system was high and noble and dealt with serious issues. Entertainment was just something we watched — films, TV, sitcoms. Today, politics is part of the overall pop-cultural system in America. Popular culture has eaten the political system.”
“We've given celebrities a disproportionate amount of political coverage,” he said. “For a while, celebrities were the face of the movement against the war in Iraq. It was ‘the president says this and Tim Robbins says that.’”
Three networks no more
“It really shows a change in the news environment,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Washington-based Pew center. “If anyone had any illusions of the [persistence of] the old three-network model of news, it's gone forever.”
“I don't know whether the definition of news has changed,” Doherty said. “The networks do still command a big audience on a nightly basis. But it's been well-documented that the audience is getting older.”
“It's not as if objective journalism is a thing of the past,” he said. “It's that there are more choices, and people are availing themselves of those choices."
“Kerry is behind President Bush in the polls. Things are not looking good. In fact, today Ralph Nader asked Kerry to resign.” — Jay Leno
A childhood memory
Thompson recalled his own transformative experience with late-night TV:
“A lot of 15-year-olds aren't interested in politics. I started getting political satire through reading Mad magazine. That was my introduction to political consciousness.
“When ‘Saturday Night Live’ came out, I got a good dose of what was on the American political agenda through watching Chevy Chase's Weekend Update,” he said.
“There was a lot of really dark humor going on in that ‘newscast.' That mode of irony has very much infiltrated late-night comedy. What [people] get from that comedy might change the way they think about politics.”