The News as a Joke

Pew’s finding that “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are favorite outlets of young viewers says less about the public than about the state of cable news

By Jere Hester
|  Tuesday, Sep 14, 2010  |  Updated 6:32 AM CDT
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Sometime in the last week or so, the YouTube video called “Bed Intruder Song” surpassed 20 million views.

You've probably seen – or heard – the ditty by now: a young man's animated description to a reporter of how he interrupted a sex attack on his sister has been turned into a pop hit by an outfit called Auto-Tune the News. Thanks to digital technology, Antoine Dodson of Alabama went from the news to music stardom.

“Hide your kids, hide your wife," goes the catchy refrain of the song, available on iTunes.

The taste-challenged viral phenomenon strangely came to mind with the release of a Pew Research Center survey this week on news consumption that found, among many things, that "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" do quite well with the 18-to-49 crowd. Some 80 percent of Colbert’s audience and 74 percent of Stewart’s viewers fall into that key demographic – the biggest percentages of any outlets included in the survey.

At first blush, the results might suggest the news has become a joke to many Americans, perhaps in not as blatant a way as the "Bed Intruder Song." But Pew’s findings probably say less about the public than about the state of cable news.

The survey of about 3,000 adults also found, sadly, but not surprisingly, a growing partisan split in viewership over the last two years, with conservatives attracted to Fox News and liberals flocking to MSNBC. CNN’s audience skews more left than in years past, but not as much as MSNBC’s. Both networks have slipped in the ratings since the 2008 election, while Fox has maintained its audience – which Pew attributes to the “increasing number of Republicans who regularly get news there.”

It's a danger sign when large numbers of folks regularly turn into a particular news channel not necessarily to learn about what's going on as much as to have their world view affirmed.

The split, though, also is an opportunity for comedy. Stephen Colbert, after all, built a show around a parody of Bill O'Reilly, who, nearly five years after the debut of "The Colbert Report," comes across as a moderate compared to some of his Fox News colleagues.

Jon Stewart, meanwhile, has transformed "The Daily Show" from a nightly "Weekend Update"-like one-liner fest into a showcase for political satire that often takes on the likes of Glenn Beck while not sparing President Obama.

Pew found that Stewart and Colbert fans largely lean liberal, though both shows draw a significant percentage of libertarians, on par with Beck (faux conservative Colbert actually is slightly more popular with libertarians than the Fox News host).

Offering some cause cause for cautious optimism, Pew found that even with the decline of print, people are spending more time following the news – 70 minutes a day, compared to 57 minutes a decade ago – a change attributed to the growing prevalence of the Internet.

But an informed public is only as strong as its news sources. The Stewarts and the Colberts serve an important role, using humor to cut to what they see as the truth. If we’re laughing, it’s because we get the joke – and hopefully we get the joke because we arrive already knowing what’s going on in the world.

But more often these days, the joke isn’t about the news as much as it is about those who use current events as fodder for ideological-driven rhetorical excesses that sometimes border on demagoguery. Political comedy shows and partisan gabfests aren’t substitutes for unbiased information delivery.

Some of those surveyed seem to recognize that distinction: interestingly, 10 percent of both regular Beck and Stewart viewers watch the hosts’ shows for latest news and headlines. The largest numbers, though, tune in for different reasons: some 37 percent seek out Beck for “interesting views and opinions” while 43 percent most appreciate “The Daily Show” for its entertainment value. The number perhaps most puzzling is that 24 percent of Beck fans say they watch him for "in-depth reporting."

The changing reasons people gravitate to certain news sources will be a factor worth watching when Pew weighs in with its next survey in two years. Meanwhile, there’s cause to be wary about the state of the news media – but no immediate reason to hide your kids, hide your wife.
 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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