To celebrate the return of The Daily Show and more likely, to pass judgment on new host Trevor Noah, 14 Northwestern students gathered Monday evening at CRC for a night of political satire. Amidst cries of “I miss Jon” and quite a few laughs, a dialogue began about the relevance of this comedic news giant in the modern world and, in turn, its effect on our political climate.
In the words of School of Communications freshman Elliot Kronsberg, The Daily Show accounts for “about a third of my political news consumption,” along with other broadcasts within the genre such as The Colbert Report. “I don’t follow a lot of politics, but I like hearing funny people talk about them,” Kronsberg said, and he’s not alone. According to an August Pew Research Poll, The Daily Show attracts nearly as many online viewers as real news outlets like USA Today and The Huffington Post.
Assistant Medill professor Stephanie Edgerly, who researches on the topic, indicates that the comedic format plays a large role in powering the Comedy Central phenomenon. “[The Daily Show’s] audience is someone who wants to engage but feels that existing models are not really attractive to them,” Edgerly said, describing this group as “alienated from the traditional notion of news.” She finds this especially true with young people. The Daily Show’s success lies in its ability to offer something different, but provide the news.
"By knocking down the perception that serious issues cannot be entertaining,” shows like The Daily Show significantly affect political issues, Edgerly said. For example, audiences became more aware of the role of super PACs in influencing national policy after viewing sketches on The Colbert Report, one study indicated. In Edgerly's opinion, by tackling tough topics with a humorous touch, programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are able to “show people [a] problem and what they can do about it," a strength other media outlets might lack.
Yet the bias of Comedy Central and its viewers must be acknowledged. Among those interviewed, everyone identified as at least moderately liberal. Furthermore, all said the program was also left-leaning.
“[The Daily Show] is very biased because it’s made by comedians and comedians are notoriously liberal,” said Medill freshman Andrew Stern, describing its target audience is someone “witty” and “socioeconomically aware."
This perceived bias does not necessarily limit the impact of the show, at least according to Professor Edgerly. “People are not great readers of satire,” she said, and the effect of the show lies in how people are reading it. While some content may be interpreted as jokes to liberals, conservative viewers may find the sentiment relevant to their own beliefs. (See: When Steven Colbert was invited to speak at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner.)
So, while the jury is still out on newly minted host Trevor Noah, the enormous power wielded by The Daily Show and others of its kind has been cemented in American media. More than laughter, Northwestern students and professors say these programs provide engaging content that has the potential to shape young minds' views on national politics.