The Daily Show vs. The Nightly News
Rachel Joy Larris
October 10, 2006
So which was a better program to watch during the last presidential election for campaign information, the evening news or “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?” An academic study published last week reports that “The Daily Show” had as much substantive political content covering the 2004 campaign as did the national network evening news. But the real take-away from the study shouldn’t be “it’s great that ‘The Daily Show’ is so politically substantial” but that the network news producers should be downright ashamed of themselves for putting out such a shoddy product.
In brief , Indiana University researcher Dr. Julia Fox compared “The Daily Show’s” coverage of the two weeks of conventions during the 2004 election and the night of the first presidential election to all three national network evening news broadcasts. Fox found that, while “The Daily Show” might spend more time covering a topic than the network news, its coverage essentially packs as much of a punch as the network news.
And it’s not much of a punch—at least when it comes to providing actual coverage of campaign issues. Fox’s study is a second-by-second analysis of all the programs, which looks at exactly how much was horserace and hoopla— bullshit stuff like whether the balloons dropped from the ceiling on time—and how much was talking about issues that matter—such as the person’s qualifications for office and their platform.
During a half-hour news broadcast—which, to be fair, is really only 22 minutes—there was roughly a minute and a half (103 seconds) of substantive political information. The calculations for “The Daily Show” were about the same. Although their “stories” went on longer, they had lot less actual information in them because, you know, of all the humor. An electorate really needs more than a minute and a half of real political information during the most heightened time of political periods.
Let me stress that these weren’t your average weeks on the campaigns; these were the best periods for getting actual news about the candidates so that voters could see the difference between their views. And it’s worth pointing out that according to Fox, there wasn’t a smidgen of difference between any of the news programs. None of them were very good at talking about issues that matter.
(Before you send e-mail praising the sharpness of “The Daily Show’s” media critiques, Dr. Fox said she did not code for press criticism in “The Daily Show”—she was only coding campaign coverage. So therefore when “The Daily Show” critiques Fox News, which is critiquing the audience reaction to Al Sharpton’s speech—that is still coded as “hoopla,” however smart that critique might be. Her next study, she said, will focus on whether people are actually retaining the information presented in “The Daily Show.”)
Sure, it’s nice that “The Daily Show” functions as a kind of “Sesame Street” for adults when it comes to conveying political information—using amusing words, bright, colorful graphics and muppets like John Hodgman. But supposedly it’s the job of the traditional news media to give viewers substantial information to help us be informed citizens, in order to help pick a president and that kind of thing. Instead they are giving us fluff.
It’s like saying a high school English class has as much educational value as an episode of “Reading Rainbow.” One of these things is being demeaned and it isn’t the kid’s show. It’s shouldn’t be the goal of the news media to match the level of discussion of an entertainment program. So rather than heaping praise on “The Daily Show,” really we should rap the knuckles of journalists who like to cluck-cluck about the youth who aren’t paying attention to their products anymore.