I haven’t picked up a paper in months. Sure, I read the news online when I can and browse reddit every few hours. But for many people, the main sources of news, far from a publication staffed with reporters and editors, are a TV shows headlined by comedians-turned-journalists.
But as the media landscape continues to change, can pundits like Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and John Oliver be trusted as reliable sources of news?
In that speculation lies the issue concerning such pundits. While they may be modern comedy icons as well as instrumental in bringing issues to the masses, whether they are actual journalists varies depending on whom you ask.
“First, they’re entertainers, but they’re also critics,” Medill professor Craig Duff said. “Historically, people who can speak truth to power are often the fools, the clowns, the jesters.”
From the start of television and even before, America has enjoyed funny men and women who take on the government in ways that regular journalists can’t. From Mark Twain to Saturday Night Live, poking fun at our politicians is and will continue to be an American tradition.
Yet problems can arise when the public does not agree with the point of view of such funny people or dispute arises over the factual accuracy of their comments.
“I thought Stewart was misleading,” said Weinberg sophomore Aaron Gordon, in reference to The Daily Show's coverage of certain Supreme Court rulings like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. “Every time someone calls him out on factual accuracy, he says he’s a comedian first, and that’s a little problematic because people do take seriously what he says.”
Even Stewart has described The Daily Show as a comedy show and not necessarily a news show. Stewart has been criticized for being selective of the type of news that he covers, emphasizing heavily national news and international headliners while ignoring many other topics.
The Daily Show and Colbert Report only run for roughly 22 minutes with a significant portion of the show dedicated to interviewing a guest. With such restrictions, they can’t help but be selective. Even reputable broadcast news outlets have a limited time slot to fill and have to ignore news on a daily basis.
John Oliver, a newcomer to the hosting side of things, tackles the issue differently. Instead of trying to give a broad update of the news, his show tends to focus on one topic.
“John Oliver is actually presenting things in greater depth than most people get in the way they consume news elsewhere,” Duff said.
With this strategy, Oliver is better able to explain to his viewers the complexities of the issues he covers. This analysis mixed with successful comedic writing has led his clips to become viral hits.
NU alum Stephen Colbert presents the news from a different angle. Anyone who watches the show knows that there are two Colberts: The amicable Colbert who will replace David Letterman next year and the satirical, conservative, quick-witted fool who delivers every episode of The Colbert Report with a heavy dose of truthiness.
Colbert uses his character to point out absurdity in politics and news. He distances himself from his point of view, allowing him to criticize people with more zeal while at the same time making people laugh.
This has led to numerous criticisms, most famously from conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly.
However, the main criticism against all three pundits is that they have a liberal political leaning.
“People who are in the entertainment business tend to be more liberal. Journalists tend to be more liberal,” Duff said. “I don’t think the slant is always anti-right or anti-conservative. Sometimes it’s just easier to make fun of those guys. The outlandishness of Fox News compared to other outlets is quite easy to make fun of because it is so over the top. But they have equal fun poking joking about MSNBC or CNN, anybody who says something ridiculous.”
News sources themselves are guilty of having a political leaning with channels such as the right-wing Fox News and the liberal MSNBC.
“There is no question that our news has become more polarized as our country has become more polarized and our politics have become more polarized,” Duff said. “It is bad for the consumers because they don’t get a diversity of opinions.”
So the question then is: Who can we trust to deliver unadulterated news? Social media has made it easier to get a plethora of news right at our fingertips, but compare your Google search to that of someone older. You will see that, even online, what is delivered to media consumers is fueled by assumptions that online companies make about them based on their viewing history.
With pundits, the same can be true. Pundits may deliver news, but which one you go to for commentary depends on your own views.
Therefore it is up to the viewer to be the informed critic. While many will argue over whether traditional news media or pundits are the best way to consume news, there are numerous sources of excellent journalism – one need only search for them. We can’t search for news that back our beliefs but must instead be informed consumers of news by venturing out of our comfort zones and exploring all that journalism has to offer.
People go to pundits because they present the news in a manner than is engaging, in a way that official news sources can’t present the news because of their need to be professional to remain credible. The pundit doesn’t have these same restrictions. The pundit is there to criticize and entertain. While they may not be journalists in the traditional sense, they tell stories, too, and they're certainly fun to watch.