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A QUALITATIVE INVESTIGATION OF DAILY SHOW VIEWERS:
SYMBOLIC CONSTRUCTIONS OF IDENTIFICATION AND CREDIBILITY
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I would like to thank my committee for their time, effort and input: Dr. Les
Smith, Dr. Michael Weigold, and Dr. Beth Rosenson. And I would like to extend
particular appreciation to my chair, Dr. Debbie Treise, for her unwavering support and
encouragement. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the privilege to earn
my doctorate under her guidance.
I would also like to thank Jody Hedge for her consistent help and positive attitude
throughout my graduate career in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications.
I also would like to thank all of the students whom I taught as a graduate assistant here at
the University of Florida, as well as Professor Tim Wilkerson for letting me be his
teaching assistant for so many years.
In addition, I would like to thank the staff, and particularly my officemates, at the
Department of Communication Services at the Institute of Food and Agricultural
Sciences (IFAS) here at the University of Florida. Rob, Lisa, Rebecca, Ann, Bill, Aaron,
Al, Ron, and Roger represent some of the best people I have ever worked with. I admire
their professionalism and their kindness, and am proud to have been a part of their team
for so many years.
I would like to thank my band, Bound, particularly Bound's cofounder, Patrick
Pagano, who is receiving his M.F.A. this year from Digital Worlds. Playing with this
group has been a once in a lifetime experience.
I would like to thank my family, especially my mother for her constant support,
both emotional and financial, throughout my graduate career.
And finally, I want to thank Rob Harris for his love and faith in me, and our
Political edutainment. It's the hot term right now. At its most basic level, it
represents the merging of news and entertainment programming. On a deeper level, the
rise of political edutainment programming signals complex changes in the
telecommunication industry that will continue to be felt throughout the next decadess.
On a personal level, my own interest in this topic was ignited back in the late
1990s. I was teaching a news-writing lab at the University of Florida's College of
Journalism and Communications. In an attempt to increase my students' interest, I began
incorporating alternative "news" from cable sources such as the Daily .,\/N1,i and even
seemingly lesser formal programs such as Saturday Night Live. Although many of the
students watched these shows, and other alternative satirical programming, most did not
initially regard these nontraditional formats as news. I would then lead a participant
discussion that revolved around the question: "What is news?" As a graduate student in
telecommunications, I began to wonder myself: Exactly what elements constitute a news
program, and how does humor, or other entertainment value, factor into the equation? I
had always read newspapers and considered myself reasonably well informed about
public policy issues. However, when The Daily .\/Nh,, debuted circa 1996, I became a
loyal viewer and over time found myself feeling better informed about national and
international events. In addition I found myself engaging in more conversations about
politics than I had ever previously done. In short, I believed myself to be better informed
and more involved in public affairs-and I credited this change largely to my regular
Daily .\lN,, viewing.
It is widely acknowledged television has become the primary source of political
information for the majority of the American public. However, there is far less
agreement concerning the impact different televised formats have on various viewing
audiences. The inquiry is further exacerbated by fact that the telecommunication
industry as a whole is wrestling with revolutionary changes. Deregulation, digitization,
and interactivity are just a few of the variables the researcher must contend with in trying
to assess television's influence in the modem world. As a child I remember waking up
before dawn and watching the broadcast signal before the day's programming began on
one of four available networks. Today, any time of day, I can choose between hundreds
of programming options on satellite and cable. On top of that, the Internet allows me
instant access to viewers across the country (or around the world) to converse with about
plot lines, characters, or any other topic I desire. For that matter, if I don't find
something I like on television, I can search the World Wide Web for programming as
well. In fact, with my EMAC and a $500 camcorder, I can produce my own
programming and post it for others to view and comment on.
While somewhat off topic, the above paragraph hopefully illustrates the radical
transformation that has occurred in the telecom industry in the past 2 decades. The
following investigation was initially fueled by my curiosity concerning the role
alternative news programming plays in modern information gathering and attitude
formation. My subsequent research has been extremely gratifying and I am excited to be
a contributor to the growing literature on this subject. It is my hope that communication
research such as this can help to guide media producers about ways to engage and inform
audiences, and that the media industry responds responsibly to the challenges and
opportunities new technologies present.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOW LEDGM ENTS .................................. ........... ii
PREFACE .............. ................................ iv
LIST OF TABLES ................ ................................ ix
LIST OF FIGURES ........ ............................................ x
ABSTRACT ........ ..... ................................ ......... xi
1 INTRODUCTION ....................................................1
2 LITERATURE REVIEW ............... ............................ 4
Symbolic Interactionism ............................................ 4
Political Socialization ..................................... ........... 8
Humor ......... .................................................13
Politics and Media Framing ............... ......................... 18
Generation X ........ ............................................. 34
Source Credibility ..................................... .............. 42
The Daily Show ................................................47
Research Questions ............................................... 54
3 STUDY METHODOLOGY ................ ........................ 55
Rationale ....... ................................................. 55
M ethods ........ ..... ................................ ......... 57
Data Analysis ......... ............................................. 65
4 RESULTS ....... ................................................ 67
Participants ...................... ....................... ......... 67
Theme #1-TDS is a Media Satire/News Parody ........................... 69
Theme #2-Entertainment Program vs. New Genre of News Program .......... 74
Theme #3-Credibility ............... ............................ 81
5 DISCUSSION .......... ........................................... 106
Discussion of Results ........... ........... .......................... 106
Theoretical Implications and Avenues for Future Research .................. 118
Implications for Programming Practitioners .......................... 121
Methodological Implications ..................................... ... 123
Limitations ................... ................................. 124
Conclusions .................. ................................ 125
A SURVEY ................ .................................. 128
B QUESTION GUIDE FOR FOCUS GROUPS AND INTERVIEWS ........... 129
C INTERVIEW ANDFOCUS GROUP DATA ........................... 132
REFERENCES ............................................. ......... 135
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ............... .......................... 143
LIST OF TABLES
2-1 The Daily ,.\/Nh, versus traditional news (%) ................. .......... 50
2-2 Audience composition: TDS versus network's talk shows ................... 51
C-l Interview data ............... .................. ......... ...... 132
C-2 Focus group #1, July 26, 2004 ................ ................... 133
C-3 Focus group #2, August 11, 2004 ................ .................. 133
C-4 Focus Group #3, October 26, 2004 ................ ................. 134
C-5 Focus group #3, November 1, 2004 ........................... .. 134
C -6 D iarists .. ..... ....................................... 134
2-1 Comedy Central's audience by age .................................... 51
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
A QUALITATIVE INVESTIGATION OF DAILY SHOW VIEWERS:
SYMBOLIC CONSTRUCTIONS OF IDENTIFICATION AND CREDIBILITY
Chair: Debbie Treise
Major Department: Journalism and Communications
Using a qualitative methodology, this study investigated viewers of The Daily
.\lNi1, (TDS) in order to better understand how the modem television viewing audience,
particularly the Generation X demographic, perceives alternative news programming, in
terms of the meanings they attach to the communication experience, their attitudes
concerning non-traditional news formats, and whether they identify with a larger
symbolic community of other viewers. In addition, the research addressed the theoretical
relationship between humor and information gathering, with particular emphasis on
social identification theory and information short-cuts (group identification and
schema-theory). The research was grounded in the symbolic interactionism framework,
and data were gathered via a combination of focus groups, long-interviews, and diaries.
The results indicate that modem audiences perceive a "myth of objectivity" in
current television news reporting. They consider most reports to be more editorial than
objective, but charge that the bulk of the media industry refuses to acknowledge this
phenomenon. All respondents categorized The Daily .\/Nhi as a media satire/news
parody program. However, two distinct categories of viewers emerged: those who
consider the show strictly as a source for entertainment, and those who consider the show
to be a new genre of news programming.
Collectively, respondents identified with a symbolic community of other viewers.
This identification appears to be heavily rooted in frustration with traditional network
news coverage. Respondents appreciate the satirical commentary The Daily .\/N,ii
provides and see themselves reflected in the program's coverage. The data showed three
overall categories for how respondents judged credibility with regard to TDS:
(a) respectability, which includes an increased level of status conferred by the
mainstream media, as well as a higher caliber of political guests appearing on the show;
(b) bias perception (liberal-bias, incumbent-bias, bias of humor, and identification bias);
and (c) program format, which encompassed the construct of source credibility as well as
the distinction between the show's headline and feature segments.
Come senators and congressmen, please heed the call ...
for the times they are a changing.
Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines news as "a report of a
recent event; intelligence; information" (p. 1295). Although nothing in this definition
addresses the tone of how such information should be passed along, traditionally,
broadcast television news has generally been regarded as a "sacred cow." Serious
journalism has perceived little utility for self-parody, and reporters generally strive to be
considered sober, objective public informants.
This image of the objective, conscientious journalist is rooted in the public
service model of broadcasting, a model that has radically changed since the deregulation
of the 1980s and 1990s. And while the notion of the public service broadcasting model
was always ideal at best, in the wake of massive deregulation and profound channel
increase brought about by digital technologies, political edutainment programming has
snowballed in response to the increased commercial overtures of for-profit news
organizations and 24-hour networks. As Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington
Post lamented, "News has become everything from Hard Copy to Entertainment Tonight
to America Online" (Zoglin, 1996, p. 61).
This investigation seeks to better understand the how the modem television
viewing audience (particularly the Generation X demographic) perceives alternative
news programming, in terms of the meanings that they attach to the communication
experience, their attitudes concerning the anti-traditional news format, and whether they
identify with a larger symbolic community of "other" viewers. A symbolic interactionist
perspective is utilized to organize the research. Symbolic interactionism strives to
uncover the motives people ascribe to their behaviors and to understand how individuals
construct meaning in their lives. The approach supports a more active, cognitive role for
individuals than does many other approaches. It contends that "culture and social
structure change over time" (Hewitt, 1988, p. 23), and as such, individuals will (to
varying degrees) adjust their behavior in order to secure the outcomes they ultimately
desire. Symbolic interactionism is grounded in the notion that as a result of socialization,
people strive to "belong" to a community, which provides some measure of identification
for its members (Hewitt).
This study focused on viewers of The Daily .\lhe,,i (TDS), a half-hour satirical
news program broadcast on Comedy Central. Several qualitative measures were
employed to collect data: focus groups, long-interviews, and diaries. A qualitative
analysis was determined to be the most appropriate methodology for this examination
due to the exploratory nature of the research, and the desire to try to identify the rationale
behind individuals' decisions to watch the program. Through this data collection, the
reasons why viewers choose to watch the program and what meanings they attach to the
show, its content, and how they regard the show's host and correspondents can be better
understood. In addition, this examination helped to better determine whether viewers
developed a sense of identification with the talk show host and correspondents and
whether they felt connected to a larger viewing community as well.
The investigation occurs at a time when the telecommunication industry is at a
crossroads. Digital technologies have provided an unprecedented wealth of channels that
encourage niche programming. The modem television news viewer has programming
options available as never before in the history of the medium, as well as additional
exposure access to online forums such as Internet chat rooms, web blogs, newsletters,
and listservs. Simultaneously, the traditional television news format has lost credibility
as networks succumb to more profit-oriented practices in the aftermath of industry
deregulation. Ideally, the results of this investigation will contribute to the emerging
literature and knowledge base concerning alternative news formats and audiences.
Chapter 2 reviews literature appropriate to the investigation. Chapter 3 discusses
the methodology that will be used. Chapter 4 presents the results of data gathering, and
the study ends with a discussion and conclusion section in Chapter 5.
Studies of communication behavior and political agenda-setting must
consider both psychological and sociological variables; knowledge of both
is crucial to the establishment of sound theoretical constructs. (McCombs
& Shaw, 1972, p. 135)
This review begins with the theoretical perspective to be used in this study:
symbolic interactionism. The concepts of community, generalized others, and idealized
representations are discussed. Literature on shared reality also is incorporated to further
increase the understanding of this approach.
The review then investigates how individuals process information and develop
attitudes by reviewing literature on political socialization and social identification theory.
Media's role in this process is then examined, with a particular emphasis on the increased
merging of news and entertainment programming. Findings about Generation X are then
presented, including their socialization experiences and media habits. Finally, source
credibility literature is reviewed and the discussion ends with an overview of The Daily
"The complex and even paradoxical relationship between the individual and
society and culture" has long intrigued social psychologists (Hewitt, 1988, p. 22). Such
paradox arises out of the symbiotic relationship between a society and its members.
Almost from birth, humans are conditioned so that they can operate within a particular
society. However, as Hewitt notes, "this very society on which they depend is also
dependent upon them, for society is nothing more than the coordinated actions of its
members, and its culture is transmitted from one generation to the next only through their
actions" (p. 22).
Throughout life, one is expected to behave in certain prescribed ways in a variety
of social situations. These "lessons" are taught through a variety of channels: family,
peers, institutions (such as education and religion), and the mass media. Although there
is a lack of consistency among researchers and disciplines as to the degree of each
group's influence, it is generally understood that to some degree, an individual is the
product of his socialization experiences and his predispositions will be significantly
impacted by unique developmental experiences throughout his lifetime, including
childhood socialization, and economic and ethnic considerations (Atkin, 1975; Zaller,
As a theoretical perspective, symbolic interactionism distinguishes itself from
other social psychology approaches by investigating human behavior and reasoning
processes from the perspective of "how people estimate potential costs and benefits and
why they find certain actions more rewarding than others" (Hewitt, 1988, p. 23). In
addition, symbolic interaction acknowledges that environments (social, political, and
cultural) evolve, and thus the researcher needs to understand not only how they are
sustained, but also how they change over time (Hewitt, 1988).
But what is symbolic interaction, and how does the process occur between
people? The tenets of symbolic interaction are rooted in the concept of shared reality.
Shared reality is a process by which individuals interact to create common areas of
experience. In every condition that a communication message occurs, all involved
parties (i.e., the sender, and all the recipients) must actively, interdependently process its
meaning. Thus, the success of shared reality is a collaborative endeavor. In order for
individuals to successfully communicate with each other, they must construct, or
recognize, agreed upon "symbols" to represent abstract psychological constructs (Hewitt,
1988). Symbols include more obvious constructs such as language; however, it is
important to recognize that communication messages are routinely sent through
nonverbal channels as well. For example, how one dresses or other aspects of an
individual's physical appearance can convey a wealth of information about one's social
perspective (Hewitt, 1988; Leary, 1996). A symbol is an abbreviation, and what a
particular symbol represents will vary-not only from individual to individual but, on
occasion, even the same individual may interpret information differently over time, and
in different contexts. This symbolic attribution will be constructed out of the number and
types of associations a person attaches to a symbol. Likewise, members of different
societies or cultures may interpret symbols in unique ways, and not all members of a
particular group may attribute identical or even similar meanings for a given symbol at a
particular moment in time (Baran, McIntyre, & Meyer, 1984).
In this discussion is it important to understand what the terms "society" and/or
"community" represent. Traditionally, communities emerged out of physical geographic
boundaries. Sociologists term these "organic communities." Members of organic
communities experience a sense of identification with one another and share similar
values and views of the world (Hewitt, 1988). An individual can gauge his or her actions
within the established norms and expectations of other community members, collectively
referred to as the "generalized other" (Hewitt, p. 131). The generalized other is an
idealized representation of a group member (Goffman, 1959). The construct provides a
sort of blueprint of actions for community members to follow, in order to maintain the
status quo, and enables society to function in a coherent, organized fashion. In this
context, groups of people identify with specific role types and adapt to existing norms of
conduct. For example, one likely has specific ideas about how a doctor or priest should
behave. Routine interpersonal exchanges carry similar expectations, for example,
appropriate exchanges when greeting a friend or acceptable behavior at a funeral.
Goffman (1959) extends the concept of role playing to larger groups, wherein the "front"
becomes a "collective representation" (p. 27). The reward for following the prescribed
set of behaviors is status and acceptance within the community and, subsequently, a
positive self-image, an important goal for most humans (Leary, 1996). In fact, the noted
sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) popularized the notion of dramatic role playing in
everyday life, and went so far as to assert that the world is a stage, and everyone is an
actor. In the continuing play of life, different roles require performances for varying
audiences and the actor adjusts his or her performance accordingly to engender the
Goffman's social psychological constructs of the "self' and the "generalized
other" help to decipher the complex processes that comprise how an individual navigates
his path through the world. Because humans have the intellectual capacity of "self-
consciousness," that is, to be conscious of the self, "we are able to become objects to
ourselves" (Hewitt, 1988, p. 11). As such, individuals wrestle with how to define the self
within a society (or within multiple societies). An individual can belong to a number of
different communities. For example, a college student might define himself as a member
of a fraternity community, a sports team community and as a member of his academic
community. In addition, when he visits his parents at home, he rejoins the community of
his nuclear family, and perhaps his hometown. However, although people may operate
within a number of different communities, they do not necessarily identify strongly with
all of them:
They work for a company, live in a certain neighborhood or city, have a family,
belong to clubs and other voluntary associations, and interact with people in
diverse settings. The construction and maintenance of personal identity requires
more than the array of roles and group memberships encountered in everyday life.
It requires the ability to identify with others with whom one has at least
something in common, to regard these others as a community, and to make that
community the basis for assembling a more coherent picture of the self. To a
great extent in modern life, these others must be sought and sometimes imagined.
(Hewitt, 1988, p. 138)
Complicating the issue further, technology now allows people to create
communities without regard for physical boundaries. This radically alters "the basis on
which people form communities and thus identify with one another" (Hewitt, 1988,
p. 134). It also impacts the manner in which communities operate. A virtual community
may have less formal guidelines for its members, and the "sense of community must be
sustained by the self-conscious imagining of the nature and scope of the community"
(Hewitt, p. 135). In these instances, "the creation and maintenance of identity requires
more self-consciousness" (Hewitt, p. 136). This evolution has led some to conclude that
"identity is the chief problem of modern society-[and] that the task of finding identity is
thus a main goal of modem people" (Hewitt, 1988, p. 136).
An individual's political identity is constructed through a process of political
socialization. "Political socialization is a developmental process by which children and
adolescents acquire cognitions, attitudes and behaviors relating to their political
environment" (Atkin, 1975, p. 2), and encourages the transmission of political culture
among generations. This process maintains political stability and contributes toward an
overall reservoir of diffuse support for the system in general (Erikson & Tedin, 2001).
The construct parallels symbolic interactionism in many ways. Like symbolic
interactionism, in order for the cultural system to successfully continue over time, new
generations must conform to its existing prescriptions. As such, "youth must be
inculcated with a desire to fulfill role expectations of society concerning normative
political behavior" (Atkin, 1975, p. 2). Akin to symbolic interactionism, multiple agents
are considered key transmitters of political orientations from generation to generation
including parents, schools, peers, and the mass media (Atkin, 1975; Zaller, 1992). For
the individual, the process is a gradual one. As Greenstein (1968) notes "the
socialization process typically begins with abstract emotional attachments these
vague affective allegiance are supplemented with specific knowledge during
adolescence, when the child develops a more rational understanding of his political
world" (Atkin, 1975, p. 2).
As noted in the preceding section, symbolic interactionism contends that
investigations into human behavior and reasoning processes need to account for "how
people estimate potential costs and benefits and why they find certain actions more
rewarding than others" (Hewitt, 1988, p. 23). This contention has particular relevance
for this investigation because as Craig (1993) notes, for many people "politics is a low-
salience domain" (Owen, 1997, p. 86). However, citizens realize that politics affects
their lives, and as such they "find a means of balancing the costs and benefits of political
activity" (Dalton, 2002, p. 24). Political science researchers have exhibited keen interest
in the processes by which individuals approach these challenges.
As members of a society we are socialized from our earliest interactions.
Through these interaction lessons, we learn how the world works. We form attitudes and
beliefs about the nature of objects, values and individuals. These lessons can be both
direct and indirect, and they are powerful. Edelman (1993) compares the shifting lens of
the social world to a "kaleidoscope of potential realities" (p. 231). His treatment focuses
upon the intrinsic power social category classifications wield over political issues.
Central to this perspective is the influence of unconscious cues upon an individual's
belief system. Given the enormous amount of information a person has to process on a
regular basis, it is understandable that the majority of data we receive are categorized into
existing categories of knowledge storage. Research shows that this level of process
varies and is affected by issues such as cognitive load and motivation (Eagly & Chaiken,
1993). Because they are used as such routine organizational guides, "categories are
especially powerful as shapers of political beliefs, enthusiasm, fears, and antagonisms
when they appear to be natural, self-evident, or simple description rather than as
propaganda tools" (Edelman, 1993, p. 232).
One manner by which individuals organize information and create their political
attitudes is through the use of information shortcuts. Information shortcuts provide a
rationalized means of organizing information with a minimum amount of cognitive
effort. The political science literature references three types of information shortcuts:
specialized interests, reference standards, and schema-theory (Dalton, 2002). This
review will address the latter two as they are most relevant to this investigation.
Reference Standards-Group Identification
One method of organizing political information is by using existing reference
standards, such as social groups, as a source of political cues. "Membership in a social
group, either formally or through psychological ties, can act as a guidepost in dealing
with policy questions" (Dalton, 2002, p. 27). There are substantial data, extending back
to the early Lazerfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet (1948) voting studies, which confirm that
social groups provide important political cues (Dalton, 2002).
Conover (1984) found that "group identifications play an important role in
defining the perceptual viewpoints that people bring to bear on politics; people
identifying with different groups focus on different things and evaluate political issues
from different perspectives" (p. 760). Furthermore, "group identifications contribute to
how an individual structures the political world; and in turn, those cognitive structures
shape the evaluation of political phenomena" (Conover, 1984, p. 781). This effect is
particularly strong for minority groups and groups that have distinctive political
perspectives (Conover, 1984). However, as Kinder (1982) suggests, it is important for
the researcher to explore "the process through which objective membership in a social
group takes on both psychological and political significance" (Conover, 1984, p. 761).
Conover (1984) defines group identification using two dimensions: an awareness
of one's own objective membership in the group, and a sense of psychological
attachment to the group. Her definition highlights an important distinction between
objective group membership and identification, in that "membership is treated as a
necessary, but not sufficient, condition for identification" (p. 761). This emphasis
underscores the notion that an individual might be a member of a group, but not develop
important psychological ties to that group, which in turn would influence his political
perception and attitudes (Conover, 1984).
Schema-theory is another type of information shortcut documented in the political
science literature. Fiske and Linville (1980) define a schema as a "cognitive structure of
organized prior knowledge, abstracted from experience with specific instances which
guides the processing of new information and the retrieval of stored information"
(Conover, 1984, p. 762). Schema-theory is based upon a "vertical structuring of beliefs
within specific political domains ... a broad organizing structure is linked to general
political orientations" (Dalton, 2002, p. 26). This method of organization enables an
individual to make logical and structured judgements based on general orientations rather
than requiring specific information on a variety of political topics, which would be
enormously time-consuming (Dalton, 2002). Self-schemas represent important factors in
understanding group identification on political perception because they "direct attention
toward information that is personally relevant; they enhance the memory of such
information; and they function as the basis of future judgements and inferences involving
one's self... [as well as] influence the processing of information concerning others"
(Conover, 1984, p. 763).
As discussed earlier, social psychology theory posits that individuals perceive
themselves in terms of "self" and "other." There is a private self and a public self. At
the next level, a person may develop a self-schema and perceive similarities with oneself,
and a particular group. At this level, group identification occurs. "In effect, in the
process of consciously classifying oneself as a member of a group, the individual takes
the very first step toward blending together the mental representation of the self with the
cognitive stereotype of some group" (Conover, 1984, p. 762). Furthermore, a somewhat
linear relationship should exist between perceived group identification and influence:
"the stronger the group identification, the stronger the perceptual effects" (Conover,
1984, p. 763). However, it is important to remember that this relationship does not imply
that group members will all share the same attitudes toward an event or product. Rather,
it indicates that by focusing on a particular phenomenon, issue salience for an individual
who identifies with the group will be heightened for that particular topic. "The group's
interests are especially salient in the perception and evaluation of political phenomena"
(Conover, 1984, p. 764).
Furthermore, Conover (1984) contends that "in particular, the perceptual
relevance of any one issue for a specific group will depend largely on whether the
language or symbols defining the issue link it to the group" (p. 765). Second, "groups
most activated by the political environment should be most distinctive in their
perceptions and evaluations. Which group ties are most likely to have been stimulated by
the recent political environment?" (Conover, 1984, p. 765). These issues will be
revisited shortly in terms of the specific characteristics of Generation X.
Researchers still wrestle with major issues in the area of political socialization.
For example, how stable are an individual's beliefs? In general, at what age do these
beliefs tend to stabilize? Does political socialization occur primarily through traditional
channels of family, school, and institutions, or does it reflect the current political
environment (Sears & Valentino, 1997)? The next section investigates the literature on
how humor can function as a powerful influence upon an individual's schema formation.
The previous section explains how group identification can facilitate the
organization of political information. Because this study is concerned with humorous
delivery of political messages, it is necessary to understand how these issues are
connected in the humor literature.
Social Identification Theory
Social identification theory (also known as identification class theory or reference
group theory) is one of the richest areas of humor research. The underlying premises of
humor social identification theory echo those of social psychology identification theory:
Identification with a particular social group will influence the way in which a person
views the world. However, in the realm of humor social identification theory, the
manner by which an individual's beliefs are reinforced by his or her membership in a
group is achieved through the use of humor. As Palmer explains, "what people laugh at,
how and when they laugh is absolutely central to their culture" (Palmer, 1994, p. 2).
Sociologists (Hyman, 1942; Merton, 1968, Sherif, 1936) claim that an individual
views the world from a social frame of reference; this framework is often derived,
at least in part, from the groups to which he/she belongs reference group
theory (by whatever name: disposition theory, identification class theory, or
social identification theory helps to explain the evaluation of group-directed
humor). (Fine, 1983, p. 172)
The earlier review of symbolic interactionism explained how symbols serve as an
abbreviation for individuals to make sense out of a variety of complex phenomena.
Humor serves as a powerful symbolic resource for various kinds of groups, and often
plays an important role in establishing community by indicating that one is "a
knowledgeable member of a social group" (Fine, 1983, p. 167).
Laughter is employed as part of a "conventional signal-language" [it] is
generated in the course of social interaction and it can be used by participants to
communicate about and to construct the meaning of such interaction ... in the
case of humor, the stimulus is a complex cultural product which requires
complicated mental processing. (Mulkay, 1988, pp. 95-96)
Understanding a humorous communication requires an enormous degree of
shared meaning between the message sender and recipient. This process is sometimes
referred to as humor "negotiation." First, in order to be successful, a humorous message
must be understood by the receiver. Second, in addition to comprehension, the comedian
(or humorous source) must also elicit "permission" from the audience (Palmer, 1994).
Humor is almost always socially mediated, occurs in a social context, and varies
according to the "interpersonal dynamics of that context" (Mulkay, 1988, p. 107). Social
groups can provide a strong framework for interpreting the intent of a humorous
message. LaFave (1972) conducted extensive research on the phenomenon of group
affiliation concerning humor and considers humor a matter of "judgement," whose
degree of success or failure is dependent upon the degree to which the listener identifies
with the various components of the message, i.e., the source and the message content.
For example, a racist joke told to a member of a minority group will likely be interpreted
differently depending on whether the source is a member of the minority group or not.
Humor construction incorporates multiple levels of shared understanding among
group members. Members of a group will often use specific language and have common
experiences that they can draw upon to develop humorous exchanges. This reservoir of
shared knowledge helps to create a sense of group identification, of community.
However, by creating a group of people inside the humorous communication exchange,
the process also inherently excludes others who do not share the in-group's internal
knowledge base and relevant reference points. Differentiation humor, which reinforces
differences among social groups, then emerges through this process (Lynch, 2002).
Differentiation is also a common process within the political realm. The process
of supporting one's own political grouping and denigrating others' views and actions is
considered "a basic structural principle within political language" (Mulkay, 1988,
p. 205). In the following quote, Mulkay (1988) is referring specifically to political
cartoons; however, his statements are relevant for all forms of political humor.
The political cartoon, like humor in general, always sets its reader a puzzle. The
"meaning" of the cartoon is never made fully explicit. Background knowledge of
the political scene, of current affairs and of the conventions of cartoon humor
must be used to interpret the clues provided in the text. As in all humor, the
components of political cartoons are organized bisociatively to create semantic
opposition which the reader must decode. The opposition inevitably operate to
undermine the position of one or more of the politicians involved and to reveal an
alternative view which is implicitly advocated in the text of the cartoon. (Mulkay,
1988, p. 203)
LaFave's (1972) contributions offer more insight on the relationship between
group identification and humor. Previous research has found evidence that individuals
are more inclined to appreciate humor directed at reference groups with which they have
negative associations and display less enjoyment at jokes in which their own reference
group is the target of the joke. LaFave (1972) later expanded this concept, when he
found evidence that not only do people identify with members of their own immediate
reference groups, but that they sometimes also identify with members of other groups
that may share similar characteristics of their own group, or personal situation. Through
this relationship, an individual can experience vicarious superiority effects through
It is evident from this review that powerful socialization forces shape how people
learn to react to humor. Much humor is based upon socialized stereotypes and these
stereotypes are routinely activated in popular culture portrayals, as well as in the political
environment. The next section looks at research conducted on the persuasive
effectiveness of humor.
Humor As An Agent Of Attitude Change
While satire has always been perceived as a powerful force of social change, past
research on the topic has delivered inconsistent findings on its persuasive effects
(Markiewicz, 1974). Humor is generally considered an appropriate mechanism to
enhance audience attention and interest on a subject, but research has not found a linear
relationship between humor and information retention (Gruner, 1967). However, critics
charge that although strong empirical support for humor's role does not yet exist, the
fault may lie more with experimental methodology than theory (Markiewicz, 1974).
Despite the lack of empirical evidence, the fact that humor is frequently employed in
persuasive communications, such as advertising and speeches, underscores the generally
held belief that correctly utilized, humor is an effective persuasive mechanism (Brown &
One of the main theoretical arguments in the humor field concerns the impact of
satire upon the existing political system. Does humor subvert or sustain the existing
status quo? Mulkay (1988) contends that political humor tends to "conserve, rather than
to subvert the existing patterns of political life [because], the more closely humor is
incorporated into existing social structures, the more it comes to maintain those
structures" (p. 211). However, Mulkay also concludes that humor "should not be
regarded as an inherently inferior form of discourse. In its purest form, it constitutes a
radical alternative to the way in which we create our ordinary social world" (Mulkay,
1988, p. 222).
Charles Gruner (1967), a pioneer in humor research, conducted the first study on
speaker ethos and audience information gain. Gruner called for study into factors that
"might interact with the effect of humor on retention" (p. 1232). Markiewicz (1972a,
1972b, 1973, 1974) responded to this challenge and conducted several studies
investigating the effect of source credibility as a moderator on humor persuasiveness.
Although she did not find consistent evidence to support the source credibility moderator,
in a subsequent publication Markiewicz (1974) acknowledged that her source credibility
manipulation was weak, and that future research should explore the construct.
Gruner (1965) suggested two particular difficulties in conducting research on the
effectiveness of satire, and pointed to these as reasons as why data may erroneously
suggest that its power is limited. The first reason is that the indirect nature of satire
makes it difficult for subjects to recognize the speaker's main argument thesis. Second,
consistent with Goodchilds (1959) findings, a speaker may experience a loss in ethos by
subjects by using satire.
Consistent with the previous literature reviewed on social identification, both in
the political science and humor disciplines, Mulkay (1988) contends that a recipient's
frame of reference will determine his use of the political humor message. Likewise, a
relationship tends to exist between the larger distribution network and the specific
channel of communication, whereby the end user has a predisposition for the message
because he is emotionally attached to the media product as a whole. For example,
Mulkay notes that the audience for a particular political cartoonist will also be a reader
for the newspaper or magazine itself, and thus the audience will be inclined to favor the
political stance of the cartoonist's (who is endorsed by the periodical) message.
Generally speaking, political cartoons, "are addressed to the converted and are designed
to strengthen, and reaffirm, recipients political commitment rather than to change it"
(Mulkay, 1988, p. 209). The perspective has significant relevance for this study. The
Daily .sh,\l is considered alternative programming on a comedy network. Future
sections of this chapter explore the political socialization of Generation X, and the
audience for The Daily \sh,li and its parent network, Comedy Central.
Politics and Media Framing
Members of different political groupings understand political events in
significantly different ways people with different political commitments tend
to employ divergent interpretive frameworks to formulate the character of the
events in which they are involved. In this sense, the actors subscribe to different
political realities; they inhabit divergent political worlds. (Mulkay, 1988,
Thus far, this review has explored issues of political socialization and theoretical
frameworks concerning how these associations are developed and activated. The
discussion will now examine the research regarding mass media as a political
socialization force. The review will then move on to research conducted on
entertainment and humorous political programming.
In the wake of WWII, concern over the growing popularity and diffusion of
electronic media (i.e., radio) led social scientists to investigate audience effects from
exposure to political broadcast messages (Iyengar et al., 1982). Early research found
minimal effects for political broadcast material and the literature continued to reflect this
belief for several decades. In fact the academic community was so entrenched in its
defense of the minimal effects theory that as late as 1956 one political scientist, Eugene
Burdick, abandoned the American Political Science Association (APSA) when he was
unable to find another colleague who would support research that questioned the minimal
effects theory (Robinson, 1976). However by the late 1960s, televised images of the
Vietnam War helped to usher in a new era of political media research. Rather than
focusing on the limited arena of campaign effects, social scientists began to examine the
effects of televised journalism on political attitudes (Robinson).
Television is considered a unique medium for transmitting news for several
reasons. Perhaps most importantly, the audience for television news is comprised of
individuals who actively monitor politics as well as those who "would virtually have no
news were it not for television" (Robinson, 1976, p. 426). Robinson labels these two
groups as advertent and inadvertent audiences, respectively. As such, this phenomenon
creates a unique pattern of exposure for television news, in that it is the only medium
where "socioeconomic status and degree of exposure are negatively correlated. Those
who are less wealthy or less educated, etc. are not only more likely to rely on television
news, they are also more likely to watch television news" (Robinson, p. 426). As a
result, the inadvertent audience member is theoretically the most vulnerable to persuasion
or other televised effects due to their predicted lower levels of political knowledge and
sophistication. Robinson contends that the theory of the inadvertent voter can explain the
changes that have occurred within the electorate concerning partisan stability and
information flow. He hypothesizes that "television journalism may be ... the missing
link in our understanding of contemporary political change" (pp. 425-426).
Although researchers (Volgy & Schwarz, 1980; Zaller, 1992) argue that existing
data gathering methods, and subsequent data gathered, still do not represent the full
strength of the effects of television on political attitudes, media-and television in
particular-is cited as a major source of political information. Furthermore, it is
generally acknowledged that because most individuals cannot experience much of the
inner world of government directly, television provides the American public with a
majority of its characterizations of political issues and personalities (Volgy & Schwarz).
So, how do television portrayals influence individual's political attitudes and
knowledge levels? In two articles investigating the power television wields in the public
policy arena, Iyengar et al. (1982) and Iyenger (1987) provide strong evidence that an
"individual's explanations of political issues are significantly influenced by the manner
in which television news presentations [are framed]" (p. 815). Iyengar (1987) also notes
that "causal beliefs are important ingredients of political knowledge opinions,
attitudes feelings, and behaviors ... are organized around beliefs about causation"
(pp. 815-816). As such, Iyengar (1987) concludes, "individuals' attitudes toward
political issues can be significantly altered by the manner in which television news
frames these issues" (p. 816).
Politics and Entertainment Programming
But what about programming that combines political information and
entertainment? Does it have the potential to exert influence upon political attitudes and
beliefs on the viewing public as well? Dominick (1974) and Rarick, Townsend & Boyd
(1973) found support for entertainment television as a potentially effective mechanism to
influence political orientations (Atkin, 1975). And Volgy and Schwarz (1980) concluded
that television entertainment programming may function as an extremely potent
socializing agent because (a) the viewer may be less critical of the message then when
viewing traditional news programming, and (b) television may be the only "direct"
experience many viewers have with different ethnic and professional groups, and to
various societal problems.
In the mid- and late-1980s, several researchers examined the impact of specific
entertainment shows on political attitudes and beliefs. Feldman and Sigelman (1985)
conducted a groundbreaking investigation into the impact of entertainment television on
political attitudes when they analyzed the impact the television docudrama The Day
After, a fictionalized account of the aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack on an American
city. They found that the program most directly influenced information salience about
nuclear war, as opposed to changing individuals' attitudes on the subject. Several years
later, Lenart and McGraw (1989)1 conducted a panel study to determine how the
1Although the Feldman & Sigelman and Lenart & McGraw studies provide great
insight into the arena of political attitudes toward entertainment programming, it is
important to recognize that they both deal with fictionalized content.
television docudrama Amerika, which depicted "life in the Midwest 10 years after a
Soviet takeover of the United States," affected viewer's political attitudes and stereotypes
(p. 697). Lenart & McGraw's results showed a significant trend of increased
conservative attitude change in individuals who viewed the program. Both studies also
examined mediating factors, such as demographic variables, and indirect exposure to the
programs such as associated coverage and interpersonal discussion.
Politics and Comedy Programming
Although social and political satire has appeared on television from the medium's
earliest days its broadcast heritage illuminates the complexity of humor itself. Although
a complete analysis is untenable here, a brief review is included to help provide context
for the research.2
While many vaudeville comedians made successful transitions to radio, they
found the motion picture medium a less welcoming public space for their performance
art. However, on television, performers like Milton Berle, George Burns and Gracie
Allen, and Jack Benny found the success that had eluded them on the big screen. The
comedy-variety show became "TV's vaudeville," a format which was the progenitor for
the modem talk-variety show (i.e., The Tonight .\l,,i', Late Night i/ ith David Letterman).
The star of the show would "emcee" the production, joke with guests, introduce sketches,
and provide continuity between the program and commercials (Marc, 1997). However,
while pioneer comedians, such as Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, and Red Skeleton made the
successful initial transition to television, "TV vaudeville" (i.e., the comedy-variety show)
would not emerge as the dominate genre for television comedy. When television was
introduced to the American public, the country was still reeling from the recent effects of
2 For a more comprehensive review see Marc (1997).
McCarthyism on the entertainment industry. Network executives were reluctant to
expose themselves to potential criticism, and advertisers-television's revenue
source-wanted to develop audiences that would be encouraged to perpetuate the
"American Dream" by buying their products, not revolt against the status quo. As such,
the narrative sitcom genre emerged as a "safer" platform to portray American culture.
Although early television comedies (many of which were transports from radio) such as
The George Burns and Gracie Allen .lhii' (CBS, 1950-1958), I Love Lucy (CBS,
1951-1961), and the Honeymooners (CBS 1955-1956) may have incorporated social and
political elements (i.e., Ricky Ricardo was a Cuban immigrant, Jackie Gleason portrayed
a working class man), these weekly 30-minute portrayals did not challenge the
foundations of American ideology as the Lear sitcoms of the 1970s (All in the Family,
CBS 1971-1979; Maude, CBS, 1972-1978; The Jeffersons, CBS, 1975-1986) and others
(Mary Tyler Moore, CBS, 1970-1977; M.A.S.H., CBS, 1974-1983) would 2 decades later
(Marc, 1997; Bodroghkozy, 2001). The idealized representations of family life that the
Networks "sold" to the American public of the 1950s (i.e., Father Knows Best, various,
1954-1960; The Dick Van Dyke .\hr,i', CBS, 1961-1966) upheld traditional family values,
as well as American patriotic sentiments (Marc, 1997).
Of course there were exceptions that more directly merged politics and
entertainment. For example, comedian Mort Sahl lampooned Eisenhower on The Ed
Sullivan .\/h,ii' (Klein, 1996), and politicians routinely appeared on The Jack Paar .\n,1,
(Paar, 1961; Severo, 2004).
The Steve Allen .,\/1N, (NBC, 1956-1959) is a particularly notable entry in this era.
Allen hosted alternative performers such as beat poet Jack Kerouac and comedian Lenny
Bruce. However, his attempts to incorporate such controversial figures proved
challenging in the post-McCarthy era on a medium that survived on commercial
The comic possibilities of Lenny Bruce suddenly unleashed on a TV Show
between a commercial for Dupont and an appearance by the Three Stooges are
sacrificed to television's paranoid, lowest-common-denominator legacy.
Ironically, the "least objectionality" principle is upheld even as it is seemingly
subverted by the presentation of an outspoken advocate of racial desegregation,
First Amendment expression rights, and sexual freedom. (Marc, 1997, p. 59)
It is important to recognize that, in the modern landscape of cable niche-programming,
Bruce's humor and persona would likely have found an audience that embraced his
perspective and would have allowed him the freedom of speech to present his material
intact (Marc, 1997).
However, in the more restricted era of mass "public trust" programming, edgy,
angry, opinionated voices did not have many outlets on television. It is interesting to
note that in the arts, using humor to navigate around governmental censure (or censure
from the ruling class) has long historical roots. As early as the fifth century B.C.
Playwrights, including Aristophanes and Euripides, managed to work politically
satiric references into their plays by allegorizing the current events (i.e., The
News) of Athens into fictional settings, a convention well understood by the
audience. By swaddling jokes in the blankets of a drama, an artist could "get
away" with things that would be considered vulgar or even mortally offensive had
they been presented to the audience in direct second-person address. To this day,
drama has a relatively better time of it than stand-up comedy in totalitarian and
authoritarian societies. (Marc, 1997, p. 14)
Unlike stand-up comedy, which "often depends on the shocking violation of
normative taboos" (Marc, 1997, p. 20), the situation comedy tends to reinforce the status
quo. The important distinction between the stand-up comedian and the comedic actor is
that the stand-up artist minimizes the line between the worlds of fantasy and reality.
Unlike dramatic actors who are recognized as playing a role, or even a TV reporter who
is viewed as an objective presenter of "The News," the stand-up actor is more fully
perceived as representing himself and his personal views with the audience (Marc, 1997).
"The contrast between the boldness of stand-up comedy and the ameliorative structure of
dramatic comedy had a significant impact in shaping the character of American
commercial television in the 1950s" (Marc, 1997, p. 17).
Whereas the comedy sitcoms of the 1950s idealized the American family, and the
American experience, the fare of the 1960s took the escapist quality of the medium a step
further. Rather than address the significant and visible political and social changes
taking place, American comedy sitcoms of the 1960s instead opted to showcase escapist
entertainment such as domesticated witches (Bewitched, ABC 1964-1970) and
shipwrecked passengers (Gilligan's Island, CBS, 1964-1967) (Bodroghkozy, 2001;
However, several programs did emerge during this period that are considered
important markers in television's political satire history: That Was the Week That Was,
The .,Inti,, i \ Brothers Comedy Hour, and Laugh-In. Their success varied, largely in
relation to the degree of their antagonistic stance against the establishment. The Week
That Was (TW3) debuted on NBC in 1964. The show, hosted by journalist/comedian
David Frost, was adopted from British television (Frost was also the original host in
Britain); and the format was devoted exclusively to topical satire. At the time, the
content was considered so controversial that NBC stopped airing the show in the weeks
preceding the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater election, and in the wake of constant censorship
battles the network cancelled the show after only one season (Marc, 1997).
The second testing of the waters came in the familiar form of the comedy-variety
show. The S.nm,,uir 's Brothers Comedy Hour (SMB) was CBS's attempt to lure younger
viewers to their network. The show's first season began in January of 1967, and its
content was "nothing less than avant-garde" (Marc, 1997, p. 120). SMB directly targeted
controversial issues such as the Vietnam War and drug use. And like TW3, SMB's
producers found themselves continually harangued by CBS censors. For example, Pat
Paulsen, an SMB series regular, "ran for president" during the 1968 election campaign,
and poked fun at the real candidates and the electoral system in general. However, in the
weeks immediately preceding the Humprhey-Nixon election CBS refused to allow
Paulsen on the air (Marc, 1997). Another recurring sketch, "Share a Little Tea with
Goldie," parodied afternoon TV advice shows for housewives and was riddled with drug-
oriented humor. Although the network censors argued over the some of the content in
the Goldie sketches, much of the material made it onto the air, simply because the older,
less hip, CBS executives did not understand the slang vocabulary used by the
counterculture. The entire story of the reasons behind SMB's demise is chronicled
elsewhere in detail (Bodroghkozy, 2001; Marc, 1997); however, here it is sufficient to
note that by the spring of 1969 the show was cancelled, largely due to the politically
charged material it incorporated. In addition to advertiser concerns, some network
affiliates protested the show's "sick" standards and threatened not to air it in their areas,
particularly during prime-time (Bodroghkozy, 2001).
The third entry in this era's category was Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In (NBC,
1968-1973). Laugh-In proved to be a much more commercially viable platform for
topical commentary than either TW3 or SMB. Despite the fact that the show addressed
topical issues (for example, there was a weekly news summary called "Laugh-In Looks at
the News"), it's delivery was far more casual and nonconfrontational than its
predecessors. A prime example of Laugh-In's success at skewering the establishment
while simultaneously endearing itself to the mass public is evident in Lily Tomlin's
portrayal of telephone operator Ernestine. As Marc (1997) reports, Tomlin's Ernestine
character "provided the closest thing to an evolved critique of an American corporation
that had ever been heard on the airwaves" (Marc, 1997, p. 125). The show also featured
a litany of famous guests, including a particularly noteworthy appearance by Richard
Nixon in 1968 delivering the show's classic line "Sock it to me" (Marks, 2000). Another
unique feature of Laugh-In was its revolutionary production techniques. George
Schlatter, Laugh-In's creator/producer, developed a modern style of editing that used
quick cuts that transformed the traditional aesthetic traditions (Marc, 1997).
Despite these attempts to lure younger viewers with the shows mentioned above,
in large part, the television viewing audience of the era still largely consisted of older
viewers and children. Not finding representation, the highly desirable 18- to 34-year-old
advertising demographic had largely tuned out the medium in favor of folk and rock
music (radio) and alternative print media. The general feeling among the country's youth
was that television was tied to the "establishment" and was an integral part of the
hegemonic process that they were so earnestly rallying against. Some in the industry
worried that this generation, the first to be raised with television, might have abandoned
the medium for good. Because the medium was so new, there was no historical
precedence to guide the industry as to whether they could recapture the youth market
(Bodroghkozy, 2001). The situation generated serious concern within the television
industry as it struggled to bridge the gap between the estranged politicized youth of the
day and the medium's older, loyal, more conservative viewers. As the 1960s came to a
close, television executives began to see the writing on the wall. They recognized that
the formula would have to change in order for the medium to survive.
The sitcoms of the 1970s signaled important changes for the television industry.
Rather than avoid the cultural issues as the escapist fare of the 1960s had, television
comedies began to explore the generational, ethnic, and political divisions that existed
within American society. A far cry from the happy heterogeneous nuclear family
portrayals of earlier sitcom fare, the new comedy sitcoms included untraditional families,
minorities, and dared to present the establishment, including the military, in less than
ideal ways (Bodroghkozy, 2001; Marc, 1997). Again, a complete review is not viable
here, but it is important to recognize that the commercial success of these formats paved
the way for a new generation of television programming. As Marc (1997) notes,
Programming formats rise and fall. ... As is the case with automobile marketing,
the latest model anachronizes the previous by defining a new state of the art. ...
If commercially successful, one TV show may significantly revise an "existing
order" that has been casually portrayed in a given genre for years. (Marc, 1997,
For the first time, the networks were faced with developing programming for a
generation that had experienced television all of their lives. In the 1960s television
action/adventure crime shows such as Dragnet and The Mod Squad had begun to
incorporate "The News" (i.e., salient issues of the day); however, the sitcom, "the most-
intimate of prime-time genres" (Marc, 1997, p. 145), had yet to tackle these topical
issues. In the early 1970s three shows in particular-Mary Tyler Moore, All in the
Family, andM*A *S*H3-exploded onto the small screen and helped not only to
legitimize the sitcom, but the television medium, as a viable art form. The genre
respected its audience's post-60s maturity, and delivered the advertising industry "a
3It is telling however, that the principals ofM*A*S*H would not comment on the
show's political content, or even to acknowledge that it contained any. Marc (1997)
surmises that the producer's anti-antagonistic stance (and strong ratings) helped to
protect the series from censorship despite the "legacy of McCarthyism that continues to
cast a shadow over American popular culture" (p. 158).
quality mass audience delivered by a quality product" (Marc, 1997, p. 145). The comic
narratives found their way into national dialogue, and their success would spawn a
multitude of other programs that allowed heterogeneous representations of the American
experience such as Sanford and Son (NBC, 1972-1977), Good Times (CBS, 1974-1979),
and One Day At a Time (CBS, 1975-1984).
In addition to the sitcom, comedy in the 1970s would find success in another
familiar format: the comedy-variety show. Saturday Night Live (SNL) debuted on NBC
in 1975 and showcased cutting-edge comic talents. NBC's President, Herb Schlosser,
wanted the show to be risky and exciting and to deliver a modem view to a youth
audience. Schlosser hired Lorne Michaels, a young Canadian producer, to develop the
show and create a marketable identity (Wallner, 1991).
SNL's long run (it is still on the air today) is a testimony to the fact that the show
did find its voice, and subsequent audience. However, in its first season the show
wrestled to establish itself. Celebrity guests hosted the show (comedian George Carlin
was the show's first host) and a troupe of talented comic actors, including John Belushi,
Dan Akroyd, and Gilda Radner, performed sketches. SNL also included a segment called
"Weekend Update," a news style presentation that satirized topical issues (Wallner,
Although the show was perceived as edgy and radical by some, critics charged
that the humor served to reinforce the status quo, rather than challenge it. Furthermore,
the nature of the humor was superficial. Although there were rare exceptions, rather than
use humor to expose problems within the system, SNL more often than not went for the
sight gag, and relied on skewering personal characteristics of a politician, rather than his
stance on issues (Wallner, 1991).
The above review is a brief historical outline of some of the processes that shaped
the nature of television satirical programming. While not all-inclusive it should help the
reader appreciate some of the historical precedents for the modem topical satire
program. It is significant to note that the "literate peak" of the Lear-era television
sitcoms occurred during the final days of the Big Three's dominance, before cable
television began to exert its influence over the broadcast spectrum. The subsequent
expansion of the airwaves would again radically change the nature of the television,
providing commercial space for a variety of niche programming. In the current age of
narrowcasting the presentational style of the comedy-variety genre has morphed into
entire networks (i.e., MTV, The Nashville Network, and Comedy Central). As the next
section addresses "The News" became the genre "most radically affected by cable," with
the "main effect of greater variety in television choices [being] the tabloidization of
television news" (Marc, 1997, p. 188).
In many respects The Daily .\l,N, traces its origins from the comedy-variety
genre. Although this type of programming may have ruffled feathers with network
executives in the past over the handling of topical issues, and generated debate among
audiences, the "entertainment" function of the format has generally led the elite to
dismiss it from more serious analysis. Recently, however, the genre as a whole, and the
Daily .\/n,,i in particular, have gained an unprecedented degree of legitimization: a
source of political information (Smith & Voth, 2002). Polls show that 10% of Americans
routinely get information about the presidential race and other political news from late
night comedy-talk shows (Marks, 2000), and this phenomenon is even more salient for
younger audiences. A 2000 presidential survey by the Pew Research Center for People
and the Press found that almost half (47%) of Americans of voting age under 30 obtain
the majority of their political information from late night television (Kloera & Jubera, as
cited in Smith & Voth, 2000). And political strategists are taking note. For example, in
the 1996 presidential election, Democratic and Republican campaign operatives began
monitoring David Letterman and Jay Leno's opening monologues in order to help
determine candidate performance (Shuger, 1997). In addition, appearances on late night
television talk shows are now a mandatory part of the campaign process for political
candidates (Marks, 2000). The distinction between the genres has become so blurred that
politicians have begun to announce their candidacies on these "entertainment" programs.
Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his bid for Governor of California on The Tonight
h.\,,i,' (CNN, 2003) and John Edwards declared his Presidential bid on TDS (Zap2it,
2003b). As the genre exhibits its highest level of credibility to date, media researchers
are beginning to ask what factors have fueled this trend?
Although politics has always had a dramatic flavor, "the line between show
business and politics has never been thinner" (James, 2000, p. B 11). Industry
deregulation and a subsequent denigration of professional journalism are considered
major factors in the process. In the decades before cable television threatened network
revenues and competed for their audiences, the Big Three (ABC, NBC, CBS) considered
their news departments more in terms of public service then profit margins (Auletta,
1992). However, deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s led to massive media
conglomeration. Furthermore, networks and other media providers were often bought by
companies that were not formerly in the news business. The media frenzy of the time
often led to bidding wars, and forced corporations to take on huge debt as they acquired
these media outlets (Auletta, 1992, 1998). Corporations had to justify their bottom lines
to shareholders as the network news departments never had before. In addition, news
networks such as CNN, MSNBC, CSPAN, and the Fox Channel began broadcasting 24
hours a day, which not only increased competition between news providers but forced
producers to generate huge amounts of content to fill the expanded airtime (Zoglin,
1996). Increased capacity has also produced a wealth of niche programming alternatives
that were not available in past decades (Marc, 1997).
In response to these pressures television news programming began to display
characteristics formerly associated more closely with entertainment programming than
traditional news reporting. For example, magazine style shows have increased. The
format generates good revenue and allows networks to appear to be fulfilling their public
service role without shouldering the enormous cost of original newsgathering. News
bureaus have also begun to whittle down their field reporting, both by consolidating
crews and increasingly relying on Internet reporting (Rottenberg, 1994).
Another important phenomenon in this evolution has been the increased amount
of sensationalized reporting. Events such as the 0. J. Simpson murder trial and the
Clinton/Lewinsky debacle helped to blur the line between news and entertainment even
further as reporters scrambled to get increasingly lurid details to hold the public's
attention (Klein, 1996). Production trends have further erased the line as to where the
theatrical ends and the real politics begin. Television's increased shift toward reduced
sound bites, rapid-fire editing, and style versus substance is evident in both
entertainment-oriented programming and in news and political coverage (Klein, 1996).
These factors have resulted in a crisis of confidence in the American news media
(Garcia, 2003). In an article titled News Industry Anguish Over Crumbling Credibility,
Nicholson (1998) discusses the findings from a Princeton Research Associates Survey4
indicating figures as high as 62% of Americans having lost faith in the news media
accuracy. Other data show similar levels of public mistrust. A 1996 TIME/CNN poll
reported that 75% of the respondents considered the news media "sensationalistic," 63%
found it "too negative," and 73% said they questioned the accuracy of the news they
receive (Zoglin, 1996). Several high profile episodes of respected journalists fabricating
news stories also have added to the public's cynicism (Nicholson, 1998).
And it is not just viewers who are concerned. Broadcasters themselves express
similar reservations about the future of the industry. In a 1997 address to the Institute for
Public Relations Research and Education, Don Hewitt, Executive for CBS News and
founder of 60 Minutes, voiced his fear that "broadcast journalism, as America knew it,
relished it and depended on it, in the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, and a good part of the 70s, is
becoming a lost art and may all but vanish by the end of the century" (Hewitt, 1997,
p. 48). Another news icon, Walter Cronkite, also criticized the industry for television
journalism's falling standards. He claimed that the Big Three networks frequently were
too soft in their newscasts and that reporters failed to interpret the day's events for their
audiences (Rottenberg, 1994). Cronkite laid blame on tabloid journalism saying that "It
is part of the whole degeneration of society in my mind. We've always known you can
gain circulation or viewers by cheapening the product, and now you're finding the bad
driving out the good" (Rottenberg, 1994, pp. 35-36). Pundit style news shows have also
contributed to the problem. Instead of rationally discussing the issues of the day, the
McLaughlin style format has been reduced to guests facing off on each side of the fence,
promoting extreme views. The end result is a shouting match which often resembles
4The poll was commissioned by Newsweek in 1998 (Nicholson).
professional wrestling more than intellectual debate (Friend, 1997). And so as traditional
news media have slid into more entertainment style programming techniques,
"entertainment" programming has begun to gain a margin of respectability.
Members of Generation X are a prime demographic for alternative news
programming. This next section discusses the political socialization of Xers and why
they may be particularly susceptible to this type of information format.
Generation X-Political Socialization
The investigation now turns to the question, what are the characteristics of
Generation X? Is this group an identifiable entity politically? The question raises
several problematic issues for inquiry. As Bennett and Craig (1997) caution,
generational research is difficult because of the "life-cycle effect." Researchers must try
to distinguish whether new generations display different patterns from previous
generations over time, or whether they simply repeat patterns of previous groups. In
studying Generation X, this problem is exacerbated because its members have not yet
progressed through the full life-cycle. "As a result it is impossible to know for certain
whether any differences that currently exist between Xers and older cohorts will endure"
(Bennett & Craig, 1997, p. 8).
Even the term generation can be ambigious. How is a generation defined? In
terms of years? Events? Furthermore, no one has successfully determined the age at
which an individual begins to interpret the importance of political events upon their
personal identity (Bennett & Craig, 1997). So who are the members of Generation X,
and what is their psychological makeup? These questions have frustrated researchers.
As Bennett and Craig (1997) assert "stereotypes abound, but the collective identity of
Gen-Xers-sociologically, culturally, politically, remains elusive" (p. 3). However,
despite this cynical outlook, some defining characteristics of Generation X have
Manneheim (1952) coined the term generation unit to "describe a group of people
born during the same period who at a relatively young age experienced some major
event ... that left them with a sense of having shared a common history and with feelings
of kinship connecting them to others of approximately the same age" (Bennet & Craig,
1997, p. 4). Generation X, also referred to as the post-baby boom generation, is generally
considered to be comprised of persons born between 1961 and 1981. However, Conover
(1984) concluded that group identification is defined as "objective group membership
acting in concert with a sense of psychological attachment" (Conover, 1984, p. 782).
"Not all group identities and their related self-schemas are politically relevant. To a
certain extent, the political significance of various group identities may depend on the
nature of the political environment" (Conover, 1984, p. 782).
Part of the quandary for researchers has been a lack of "identifiable influential
events" for the X generation.5 For the post-baby boomers, there was no Great
Depression, no Vietnam. However, despite an apparent lack of specific notable events,
more abstract experiences have contributed toward shaping Generation X's policy beliefs
and approaches. Cynicism, of politicians, the media, and the process as a whole, is a
defining feature for this age group (Dunne, 1997). In the political realm, Gen-Xer's were
raised in the post-Watergate era. Unlike other generations, Xers "have spent their entire
lives in an environment in which damning messages about government and its leaders are
5The terrorist attacks of September 11th can now be considered a milestone event
for all Americans, however.
the norm .. moreover, the life experiences of gen-Xers have tended to confirm this
negative dialogue" (Owen, 1997, p. 89). Generally, Xers display greater levels of
interpersonal mistrust than their elders (Owen, 1997). The radical change of the
traditional family structure strengthened Xers overall cynicism and is an important factor
in the group's socialization process. Xer's are three times more likely to be products of
divorce than their parents were (Dunne, as cited in Strauss & Howe, 1991). This statistic
has further ramifications in terms of larger proportions of working mothers for Gen X
children (20% in 1960 to 47 % in 1980 for children under 6; for 6- to 17-year-olds, the
numbers rose from 43% in 1960 to 76% in 1990, Dunne, as cited in Strauss & Howe,
1991). As a result of this phenomenon, "many Generation X children became
independent and responsible at a much earlier age than did previous generations of
children" (Dunne, 1997, p. 426).
The economic climate also signaled cynicism for Gen Xer's. It is hypothesized
that Xer's may be the first generation to have fewer opportunities and expect a lower
standard of living than their parents (Dunne, 1997).
[Members of Generation X] grew up in a world of broken promises .. they were
the first kids to experience widespread divorce and to stay home alone while their
boomer parents were out finding themselves. AIDS and the worldwide recession
suggested to them that life is short and jobs are not guaranteed. (Edwards, 2000,
This pessimistic categorization of Generation X is largely reflected in mainstream
media. The "boomer-led media" routinely portrays Gen X as "politically impotent and
civically inept," (Cowan, 1997, p. 194) a phenomenon that serves to further alienate the
demographic and fosters the belief that activism is a futile effort (Cowan), and reduces
Xers sense of political efficacy (Owen, 1997). Politically, few ads or campaign issues
are targeted toward younger adults.
Relative to the voting age population, candidates consistently under-targeted
members of Generation X and over-targeted individuals 50 and over [resulting in]
... a youth population that is starved for information. ... In one sense campaigns
often help foster a permanent underclass in politics. (Freyman & McGoldrick,
2000, p. 63)
Members of Generation X are less likely to identity with either major political party
system, and "exhibit a relatively high degree of volatility in their partisan affiliations"
(Dennis & Owen, 1997, p. 45). In fact, in the 2000 Presidential election, Xers comprised
the nation's single largest potential voting bloc "with significant swing potential. Only
5% of young people in one survey said party affiliation is a key reason to vote for a
national candidate" (Cowan, 1997).
However, contrary to the media-hyped myth of the apathetic Gen X youth, its
members are involved in civic activities. A 1997 survey of college freshman showed that
young Americans had the highest rate of volunteerism in 30 years (Cowan, 1997).
However, because Xer's have little faith in the established system, their methods are less
traditional than their parents may have been. A 1993 Boston Globe college student poll
showed that "while 73% believe an individual can bring about change in our society,
56% believe meaningful social change cannot be achieved through traditional American
politics" (Dunne 1997, p. 1). The dot-com economy toward the end of the millennium
fueled this notion by creating a class of wealthy young entrepreneurs who were learning
that they could directly impact society by going around the system, for example, by
starting foundations or companies that promoted a particular cause. Also, partly in
reaction to Xer's perception that they are disadvantaged in traditional media, they have
become proficient in using technology to gain competitive advantage over their elders
(Dunne, 1997). "Xers ask themselves, what are the things that I care most about and I
can control? Let me focus my energy there and make an impact" (American Society of
Newspaper Editors [ASNE], 1996, p. 2). Xers focus on finding cost effective solutions
(measured in time and money) and are open to new ways of accomplishing their goals
Dennis and Owen (1997) examine Generation X in terms of political
identification, and offer two explanations that support the hypothesis that Xers are indeed
different from prior cohorts. Their first explanation is that Xers have had a unique
political socialization process from previous generations. Second, Xers are politically
alienated from the system.
However, some research indicates that Xers are not significantly more distanced
from the political process than previous generations. Owen (1997) conducted inter-
generational research using data from the 1992 and 1994 ANES surveys to explore these
concepts. She found that Xers perceptions of their political effectiveness are as strong as
other generational units and suggests that, although their feelings of patriotism may not
be as strong as older Americans, this difference may equal out over the passage of time
as Xers age.
Yankelovich Partners conducted a national study, commissioned by ASNE,
investigating the behaviors of Generation Xers. They found that Xer's experiences have
led them to develop schema that are unique from previous generations. Time frame is
one example of this phenomenon:
For this generation, the future is not 40 years from now. The relevant time frame
is more likely, a week, a month, or, at the most, a year. Planning for a future,
which is decades away, and may never happen as planned, makes little sense for a
generation struggling in the present. (ASNE, 1997, p. 2)
As the Yankelovich data report, although youth has always been associated with
Searching for fun and new experiences ... it is an aspect of Xer life that they will
likely retain in one form or another throughout their lives. What is sometimes
misunderstood is that the Xers' pursuit of fun is not irresponsible or immature.
Instead, to the Xer mind-set, fun is the opposite of serious and formal. Xers want
to derive some level of fun from everything they do ... this influences the brands
they purchase, the media they consume. (ASNE, 1997, p. 2)
This sentiment segues well into the next section.
Generation X-Media Use
Generation X has been raised in an environment that offers a proliferation of
media choices unlike that of any previous generation. The expansion of the electronic
media during Xers formative years cannot be underestimated when evaluating this
group's media use:
Generation X is not an oddball group that will pass through the decades and be
replaced by one that behaves more in ways that you are used to and more
traditionally. Generation X exhibits symptoms of cultural changes in the way
people use media, based on the dominance of the electronic media in our culture.
(ASNE, 1997, p. 7)
One of the most obvious factors in examining the socialization process of
members of Generation X and their media use patterns is the fact that this generation is
the first to be raised with television:
Generation X has been called the MTV generation with good reason. For these
young people, television served as baby sitter, entertainer, and educator. And in a
world punctuated by dual-income households, absentee parents, and working
mothers, TV became a form of company as well. Xers were the first generation
to be spoon-fed educational programming like "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Roger's
Neighborhood." (ASNE, 1997, p. 3)
However, it may come as a surprise that research shows that Xers are only
marginally higher consumers of television than Boomers: about one hour more per week
on average. The differences emerge when looking at volume and type of programming.
Xers are accustomed to variety, both in terms of media channels and content.
Particularly they watch cable, and prefer programming that is more personalized, as
opposed to more traditional (and impersonal) television such as network news:
Boomer television favorites such as 20/20, 60 Minutes, and Dateline don't even
make the Xer top 10 list. And CNN, the most watched cable channel among
Boomers, falls to number six on the Xer list, and for the record, MTV is the
number one Xer channel. (ASNE, 1997, p. 3)
The Yankelovich study data showed relatively low levels of Internet penetration for Xers.
At the time of the study (1996), fewer than 3 in 10 Xers had online access (ASNE, 1997).
Radio was found to be a significant medium for Xers, as well as print media.
However, for Xers, magazines were preferred over newspapers. In fact the Yankelovich
data shows 59% of Xers subscribe to magazines (compared to 68% of Boomers). And
while more than 40% of Xers are regular newspaper readers (defined as reading a
newspaper every day or almost every day), 25% of Xers never or seldom read one. One
reason cited for the preference of radio and magazines for Xers is the capability of those
industries to develop products for individualized market niches, thus providing the
personalization this demographic craves from their media (ASNE, 1997).
One theory concerning Generation X's media habits was developed by Adam
Platt (ASNE, 1997), a media critic and alternative journalist. In 1995 Platt conducted a
study of the changing media use patterns of Generation X. Platt contends that traditional
print media are no longer the dominant agenda setters they once were. Electronic media
are now, without question, shaping how younger audiences gather and consume
information. Platt says that Xer's expect information gathering to be combined with
entertainment, and cautions that media producers who don't provide an element of
entertainment in their products, including news, will not successfully target this
demographic. In addition, he contends that Xer's socialization experiences, particularly
the breakdown of traditional family and community, make this group seek more of an
emotional connection with their media, fueling their preference for electronic media over
traditional print formats:
They are searching for a personal connection, an insight into how other people
live and what their values are. When we talk about how we are going to
connect with Generation X, we need to remember that we aren't looking at what
the electronic media communicate. We need to look more at how6 the
electronic media communicate and engage people. ... It comes down to an issue
of emotion, a visceral connection with the audience. The electronic media are hot
in that they make a very emotive, basic core connection. They are evocative.
Younger people who have grown up on television expect a passionate connection
with their information sources. (ASNE, 1997, p. 7)
One way television producers have engaged the Generation X audience has been
to play on its issues of identity. When MSNBC launched its 24-hour network, the
anchors displayed a fresh look to an industry that was accustomed to seeing older white
men in suits delivering the news. Many of the correspondents on MSNBC are young (the
average age is 35) and display a diversity, both ethnically and professionally,7, that is rare
for a news network (Friend, 1997). Friend contends that for the MSNBC model "you
need an appropriate-looking messenger .. image is identity" (p. 36).
Another valuable example in alternative programming that has been wildly
successful in capturing the youth market is The Simpsons. The animated television show
has been lauded as providing some of the "most sophisticated comedy and satire ever to
appear on American television" (Cantor, 1999, p. 734). Morever, the producers have
achieved this by creating "a believable human community" (Cantor, 1999, p. 735).
Earlier the paper discussed the sense of isolation Xer's feel as a result of their
7Many of the contributors on MSNBC don't originally come from news (Friend,
socialization patterns. The following quote helps to explain why the show holds such
appeal for this group:
The Simpsons is based on distrust of power and especially of power remote from
ordinary people. The show celebrates genuine community, a community in which
everybody more or less knows everybody else (even if they do not necessarily
like each other). By recreating this older sense of community, the show manages
to generate a kind of warmth out of its postmodern coolness, a warmth that is
largely responsible for its success with the American public. (Cantor, 1999,
Part of the shows success also lies in the fact that it credits its audience with high
levels of understanding, both for popular culture references, and for a knowledge of
television. The Simpsons "presents the paradox of an untraditional show that is deeply
rooted in television tradition" (Cantor, 1999, p.737). By focusing on an object of
satirization, The Simpsons subsequently acknowledges its importance in our culture
Before moving on to discuss The Daily .she,,' in particular, and explore how the
program incorporates some of the techniques discussed above to engage its audience,
there is one final area of literature to be reviewed that relates to this investigation: source
Research shows that a number of factors influence an individual's perception of
source credibility. Similar to schema theory, a recipient of a mass communication
processes a message using previously established attitudes and knowledge categories. As
McCroskey and Jenson (1975) contend, "what an individual brings to the media situation
(i.e., his background and preconceived notion) is a much more important determinant of
media impact than anything in the media itself' (p. 169).
Hovland and Weiss (1951) conducted some of the earliest research on source
credibility. They found that for an audience member, credibility was based upon two
primary dimensions: perceived trustworthiness (operationalized as objectivity) and
perceived expertise. Several years later, Whitehead (1968) expanded Hovland and
Weiss's dimension categories to include dynamism and professionalism (along with
trustworthiness and expertise). Although professionalism parallels expertise, Whitehead
aligns it more closely with the manner of presentation than the speaker's actual
knowledge level about a particular subject.
Berlo, Lemert, and Mertz's (1970) findings further added to the newly emerging
data, as they credited three dimensions evaluating source credibility: safety (safe-unsafe;
just-unjust; kind-cruel; friendly-unfriendly; honest-dishonest); qualification (trained-
untrained; experienced-inexperienced; skilled-unskilled; qualified-unqualified; informed-
uninformed); and dynamism (aggressive-meek; empathetic-hesitant; bold-timid; active-
passive; energetic-tired). The safety dimension broadens Hovland and Weiss's (1951)
"trustworthiness" dimension. Whereas trustworthiness refers more to how the receiver
perceives the intent of the source, safety is a "general evaluation of the affiliative
relationship between source and receiver, as perceived by the receiver" (p. 574).
This concept, a message recipient's perceived intent of the source, requires
further explanation. Attribution theory is an appropriate framework to help better
understand this matter. Attribution theory posits that a receiver's determination of source
credibility is based upon his or her perceptions of the source's motivations for advocating
his or her position. In particular, message recipients infer two types of source bias:
knowledge bias and reporting bias (Eagly, Wood, & Chaiken, 1978). Knowledge bias is
formed based on observable characteristics of the communicator, such as gender and
race, that lead the recipient to associate the communicator with certain dispositions. For
example, a young urban woman might be regarded by some as being more supportive of
feminist platforms than a middle-aged man. Reporting bias refers to the role that the
communicator represents in presenting his or her message. For example, a spokesperson
for the White House has an identifiable external agenda to maintain in his or her
communications message (Eagly, Wood, & Chaiken, 1978).
Attribution theory predicts that when knowledge bias expectancies are confirmed,
message validity is reduced. This occurs because "recipients believe that
communicator's positions are a product of their biased access to relevant information"
(Eagly, Wood, & Chaiken, 1978, p. 425). Message validity is lowered in instances of
perceived reporting bias because recipients question the communicator's motivations and
sincerity. Conversely, when expectations are disconfirmed in either case of bias,
communicator persuasion, and credibility are enhanced (Eagly, Wood, & Chaiken, 1978).
Credibility of News Sources
Because of the issues implicit in presenting news, researchers have focused
specifically on how audiences evaluate the credibility of news sources. Markham (1968)
conducted the first study of source credibility dimensions for television newscasters. His
findings echo other studies that looked at more general sources, and he identified three
major dimensions of source credibility: a reliable-logical (or validity) of the message
factor; a showmanship, dynamism, or entertainment factor; and a trustworthiness
dimension. The reliable-logical factor refers to how viewers tend to judge "the elements
of the message that could not be checked in regard to logic and credibility" (p. 61).
Markham notes that this does not connotate an evaluative dimension (i.e., a recipient is
not judging whether they like or agree with the message, but simply if the message has
face validity). Markham also references Anderson and Clevenger's (1963) interesting
contention that source credibility is divided into two conceptual groupings of fixed and
The "fixed" concept assumes an unchanging credibility during the
communication, and the "variable" concept assumes that in the communication
situation the [receiver] interacts with the message during the course of the
communication and his perception of the communicator changes during this
period. (Markham, 1968, p. 58)
The earlier research reviewed on symbolic interactionism, shared reality, schema theory
and group identification resonate well with Anderson and Clevenger's variable concept
One of the most interesting findings from Markham's (1968) study was that, with
regard to "trustworthiness" of the newscaster, subjects appeared to prefer a "more or less
casual or extempore mode of newscasting within limits of seeming expert. This might be
a very fine line that the newscaster would have to approach but not cross in his style of
presentation" (p. 62). However, it is important to note that Markham's study used
out-of-state newscasters who were unfamiliar to the subjects.
McCroskey and Jenson (1975) also looked at the image of mass media news
sources and developed a scale (still used today) to help measure media source image.
Their research was motivated by a desire to bring a more multi-dimensional perspective
to the inquiry of mass media news source image. The suggested dimensions of the
McCroskey and Jenson scales of "Measurement for Mass Media News Source Image"
are competence, character, sociability, composure, and extroversion. Although they
found all five dimensions to be important indicators of source image, competence,
character, and sociability were determined to be the most relevant.
Rouner, Slater, and Buddenbaum (1999) conducted a more recent investigation
into the area of news source credibility. Although it does not deal specifically with
television newscasters, their inquiry is an especially relevant one for the modern
researcher as it reflects the impact of the significant changes that have been occurring
within the news industry. Rouner et al. address the relationship between source
credibility and increasing public mistrust of the news industry. The authors claim that
past source credibility research has more often focused on issues of expertise as opposed
to bias. Rouner et al. argue that Hovland's original dimension of trustworthiness has
important implications in the current media environment. As credibility in the news
media (and institutions in general) continue to decline for American audiences, "one
might expect trust in the news media to be a function to some extent of the degree to
which the media are perceived to be objective or biased" (Rouner et al., 1999, p. 42).
Bias may be a subtle perception by an audience member. Media may be perceived as
biased, not necessarily for stretching the truth, but by ignoring their "duty" as expected
by the public:
News media present biased information by focusing on trivial aspects of
important news events, like personality flaw and behavioral gaffes; primarily
cover events, leaving no professional convention for addressing many of the most
serious problems confronting contemporary societies, like hunger, racism,
resource waster and depletion; fragment the news, which distorts larger issues;
and rely on too many of the same types of sources. (Rouner et al., 1999, p. 42)
Indeed, the findings by Rouner et al. (1999) suggest that "consumers' inability to
perceive news media conventions may contribute to consumer distrust in media" (p. 48).
The authors propose that journalists should function in more interpretive roles, as
opposed to trying to maintain the traditional veneer of objective journalism.
Rouner et al. (1999) advise journalists to learn more about their audiences and to
expand their range of sources so that more of the public sees themselves reflected in mass
media discourse. They also suggest that journalists may need to take a more educational
approach to news delivery in an age of increasing issue complexity. In a similar vein,
McCroskey and Jenson (1975) argue that "we need research designed to determine
perceptions of source image for different types of sources on the part of different kinds of
receivers to find measures of specific communication contexts" (p. 170). That is
precisely what this investigation seeks to do.
The Daily Show
The research reviewed indicates that the anomie of Generation X has created a
niche market for satirical alternative programming. Members of Generation X are
cynical of the established status quo. The knowledge bias is partially a result of not
being able to relate to the personalities. They do not feel that these older, white men,
who are part of the system, share similar values with their generation. This attitude is
exacerbated by the fact that traditional news programming marginalizes the younger
demographic in its newscasts. In addition, the news industry as a whole has lost
substantial credibility with American viewing audiences due to increased sensationalism
and a focus on profits (Garcia, 2003; Sohar, 2003; Trammell, 2003).
With host John Stewart's tongue planted firmly in cheek, and self-deprecatingly
billing itself as "the most important show ever," Comedy Central's8 broadcast of The
humor, identification, and news. While earlier research reviewed shows that The Daily
sComedy Central is a joint venture of Time Warner Entertainment Company and
Viacom International. (http://www.dailyshow.com/)
,'/1\hi is not the first television program to use humor to comment on topical issues, the
program's format models itself more directly upon a traditional news format than the
some of the other alternative "political edutainment" programming such as Saturday
Night Live or the various late-night comedy-variety talk shows such as Letterman or
TDS is 30 minutes long, similar to a typical news broadcast, and airs Monday
through Thursday at 11:00 PM Eastern Standard Time.9 The show begins with the host,
Jon Stewart,10 reporting on the day's news in the "Headlines" section. Later in the show
Stewart provides further updates, in a segment titled "Other News." In between,
correspondents provide slice-of-life reporting on unusual events and characters. Stewart
also conducts an interview with a person of note." The show ends with a humorous
recap of the top news stories, and a "Moment of Zen" in which an unusual video clip is
The Daily .\sh/,ii (TDS) was created by two women, Lizz Winstead and Madeleine
Smithberg (Katz, 1996). Working out of the former MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour offices
in New York City, The Daily .sh,\,l's writing staff is comprised of former newsmen and
stand-up comics. The team gathers "material from wire and satellite feeds as well as
every news program they can lay eyes on and pump out subversive, satiric pieces that
parody the form and content of 'legitimate' news shows" (Bargmann, 1998). In addition,
9Repeats of the show are rebroadcast throughout the following 24 hours, however,
and highlight clips from the show can be accessed online.
10Jon Stewart replaced the original host, Craig Kilborn, in 1998 when Kilborn
went on to host his own late night talk show on CBS.
"It is telling that in the early years of the program, the interview guest used to
hail much more often from the entertainment industry, while now the guest is more often
connected with the political realm.
TDS is particularly adept at capitalizing on the public's increasing knowledge of how the
media operates (including the technology used) and lampooning it, while simultaneously
operating within its context (Bargmann, 1998).
The show debuted circa 1996 and has been gaining momentum as a legitimate
alternative news source in recent years. The shows' profile was significantly enhanced
after receiving a Peabody award for its coverage of the 2000 Presidential election. The
Daily .\lNher, beat out Fox, CNN, and all of the Big Three networks and took home one of
the most prestigious awards in broadcast journalism (Comedy Central, 2001). Other
award nominations followed, including two Television Critic Association awards in 2003
(the show was simultaneously nominated for both outstanding comedy and information
program) and five Emmy nominations that same year (Boomtown, Daily Show lead,
2003). Although PBS's Frontline took home the Television Critic's award for
"Outstanding Achievement in News and Information," TDS's nomination in that category
is significant (60 Minutes was another nominee). However, the show did win two other
categories: one recognizing the show itself for "Outstanding Achievement in Comedy,"
and "Individual Achievement in Comedy" for host Jon Stewart for (Zap2it, 2003a). The
show also won an Emmy for "Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program," beating
out Saturday Night Live, Late Nighi ii ih David Letterman, The Conan 'Brien .N\,1 ',
and Robin Williams Live on Broadway; and it won another for best "Variety, Music or
Comedy Series," beating Letterman, 'Brien, SNL, and the Tonight .\shi,, 1, i/h Jay Leno
(E! Online, 2003).
Jon Stewart became the host of The Daily .s\/,,ii in 1999, and since then the
audience has almost doubled, from 427,000 to 788,000 by the summer of 2003 (Bauder,
2003). The target audience for TDS is generally considered to be a younger, hipper
audience: the Generation X or MTV generation. Specific numbers for The Daily .1,,1/,
versus traditional news programming highlight the strong support the show wields with
Table 2-1. The Daily .,\/,ii' versus traditional news (%)
18-34 years Males Females
Daily Show 41 (3) 63 (9) 36 (1)
Tonight Show 19(4) 42(3) 57(7)
Late Show/David Letterman 20 (7) 44 (5) 55 (5)
ABC News: Nightline 15 (7) 41 (3) 58 (7)
ABC News: Nightline-Mon. 24 (1) 57 (4) 42 (6)
ABC World News this Morn 17 (9) 45 (9) 54 (1)
ABC World News Tonight 8 (3) 41 (9) 58 (1)
ABC World News Tonight-Sat. 8 46 (1) 53 (9)
ABC World News Tonight-Sun 7 (3) 43 (3) 56 (7)
This Week 8 (3) 47 (9) 52 (1)
Cbs Evening News-Rather 7 (8) 43 (7) 56 (3)
Cbs Evening News-Sunday 12 (3) 46 (5) 53 (5)
Cbs Morning News-6:30am 17 (6) 44 (5) 55 (5)
Cbs Saturday News 11(4) 48(9) 51(1)
Face the Nation 9 (8) 43 (9) 56 (1)
Newsbreak-3.44 14(9) 25(3) 74(7)
Meet the Press 9(4) 48(3) 51(7)
NBC Nightly News 10 (2) 43 (1) 56 (9)
NBC Nightly News-Sat. 6 (7) 43 (4) 56 (6)
NBC Nightly News-Sat.(B)-10/05/2002 6 (1) 41 59
NBC Nightly News-Sun. 9 (2) 44 (3) 55 (7)
(CNN) 11(6) 49 (2) 50 (8)
(CNBC) 8(9) 66 34
(FOXNC) 9(6) 51(6) 48(4)
(HLN) 13 55(9) 44(1)
(MSNBC) 14 (1) 50 (7) 49 (3)
(Nielsen Media Ratings, 2002)
Comedy Central, TDS's broadcast network, also enjoys heavy patronage by
members of Generation X: they comprise slightly more than one-half of its total viewers.
Garcia (2003) points out another interesting component of this research: the gender
variable. Comedy Central's audience is comprised of mostly male viewers, whereas
most traditional network talk show audiences are predominantly female. A 2004 survey
conducted by the Pew Research Center found that for the first time, TDS pulled in more
male viewers aged 18-34 than any of the network evening news shows (Stewart delivers,
Figure 2-1. Comedy Central's audience by age (Garcia, 2003)
Table 2-2. Audience composition: TDS versus network's talk shows
18-34 years (%) Males (%) Females (%)
The Daily .N/h,'i 41.3 63.9 36.1
Tonight .\/,ei 19.4 42.3 57.7
Late .\/,s,i' 20.7 44.5 55.5
Communication and political science literature provide data that support the idea
that audiences are susceptible to media framing of news. However, as Edelman (1993)
notes, a message that conforms to an individual's predispositions has a much higher
likelihood of being accepted. So how do the producers of TDS cultivate such
identification within a mediated context?
Specifically, The Daily .\lNh,ii uses humor to engender the referent group.
However, as discussed earlier, in order for the audience to appreciate the humor
incorporated on the program, the viewer must understand and accept the communication.
They have to "get it." Not everyone will understand the jokes-nor are they supposed to.
The Daily .\lN/,i producers use a variety of techniques to achieve this communication
negotiation or shared mass communication reality. The Daily .\/Nh,i is laden with pop-
culture references targeted at the Gen X demographic. The writers use language
specifically designed to include their audience and, simultaneously, exclude
noncommunity members (Garcia, 2003).
Many Daily .,\/i, viewers grew up with television. They are familiar with the
commercial function of the medium, and TDS is particularly adept at capitalizing on this
knowledge and lampooning it, while simultaneously operating within its context (Garcia,
2003). Viewers of The Daily .\l,N, are aware that producers and networks want to make
money, and that the notion of public service broadcasting is an ideal concept at best and
no longer realistically functions in the modem broadcasting model.
But how does this relate to audience members tuning into a satirical news
program on a cable network? Symbolic interactionism tells us that community
identification is an important part of the way in which an individual perceives himself in
the world. Taking social cues from his various communities, the individual develops
perceptions and attitudes about the phenomenon he encounters in daily life. In the
complex modern world, a person may seek out a more abstract community that better
reflects his idealized representation of a "generalized other."
Late-night talk shows, such as TDS, have particular advantages in creating an
intimate relationship with their audience. They are generally broadcast each weekday
evening,12 and are taped on the day of broadcast. The format of the show has the host
(i.e., the comedian) begin by referencing news and popular culture events that have
occurred. Because the material is part of the national knowledge, the host can have high
expectations that the audience will be able to share in the symbolic construction of the
communication. In addition, successful late-night talk show hosts are on air for many
12 Daily Show does not broadcast on Fridays.
years. This allows viewers to get to know them over a long period of time. During this
time, the regular viewer will witness the host react to and comment upon a variety of
phenomena from presidential races, to natural disasters, to the World Series. This ability
to interact with the talk show host on a regular, almost daily, basis also increases the
actor's resistance to forming unfavorable impressions (Sohar, 2003). For example, if on
occasion, the talk show host makes a joke or comment to which the viewer is offended,
he or she most likely has a repository of prior experiences to balance the recent negative
impression against. Social psychology literature shows this to be an effective means of
identity protection (Leary, 1996).
In addition, the host often will talk about events from his own life, furthering an
intimate connection. The format also includes an extended cast of characters aside from
the host. On The Daily .\l/N,i', several correspondents are active members of the mediated
community. The host will interact and joke with other regular actors on the show.
Through these interactions the viewer can begin to form a sense of involvement,
especially over time as he or she learns more about the cast of characters and begins to
identify with them. The increasing popularity of other mass communication forums
websitess, listserves, chatrooms) that support the show also serves to build a sense of
community among participants (Sohar, 2003).
However, despite the growing credibility the popular press is bestowing upon
TDS, the show's creators and talent are reluctant to accept the status the mainstream
media are conferring. Ben Karlin, executive producer for TDS, reasons that a viewer
needs to supplement the show with real news in order to be well-informed. Likewise,
Jon Stewart, despite being invited by NBC to provide commentary after President Bush's
State of the Union address in January 2004, seems to be resisting the title of news anchor
in favor of retaining his role as comedian (Stewart delivers, 2004).
The overarching research question this investigation sought to answer was "What
meanings do viewers of The Daily .\l/,,ii', particularly members of the Generation X
demographic, attach to the program?" From this, the investigation further sought to
understand how viewers perceive the information presented on The Daily .\l,Ni. For
S RQ1: Do they perceive it as credible?
* RQ2: Do viewers consider The Daily ,.\/,,i more of an entertainment or news
* RQ3: Furthermore, do viewers of The Daily .\l/N,ii' perceive themselves as
marginalized by the mainstream news media, and subsequently feel that
anti-traditional programming, such as The Daily .\/Nh,i speaks more to
their needs and interests? And if so, why or how?
* RQ4: Finally, do viewers of TDS identify with a larger symbolic community? If
so, how do they perceive that community?
Having reviewed the relevant literature concerning and surrounding the issues this
study seeks to explore, Chapter 3 will explain the investigation's methodology in more
detail. A justification for choosing a qualitative approach is also provided.
A qualitative methodology was chosen to gather data for this study. There were
several rationales for this decision: the exploratory nature of the research questions, the
abstract understanding of audience reception of satire, and the difficulty in controlling the
The primary goal of qualitative research is understanding (Lindlof, 1995).
Qualitative measures allow the researcher to expand the scope of inquiry and encourage
respondents to share their impressions, their beliefs, and their feelings about a particular
subject. Qualitative research is extremely valuable because it can help the researcher to
better understand how culture and society influence human behavior. Qualitative tools,
such as long interviews and focus groups, help provide context for individuals' actions.
Trying to measure abstract concepts quantitatively restricts the level of understanding the
researcher can achieve (McCracken, 1988).
One of the fundamental differences between quantitative and qualitative
methodology is how each method approaches research from the start. In quantitative
research, precise categories to be studied are determined in advance. The quantitative
researcher then works to understand the relationship between these variables. In contrast,
the qualitative researcher relies upon the exploratory nature of the research to help guide
him during the process of constructing the analytic categories (McCraken, 1988).
According to McCraken (1988), "For one field, well defined categories are the means of
research, for another they are the object of research" (p. 16). Or as Lindlof (1995)
explains, qualitative research "favors an inductive mode of inquiry" (p .56). However,
Lindlof (1995) notes that while some early symbolic interactionists did examine the
relationship between "media formats and audiences constructions of reality," little of this
research was conducted qualitatively (p. 45). In response, he calls for increased
investigation into these topics using qualitative methods to explore "the rich possibilities
of symbolic interactionism for studying the sites and events of popular communication"
(Lindlof, 1995, p. 45), which is what this study seeks to do.
As mentioned earlier, Gruner (1965) suggests two particular difficulties in
conducting research on the effectiveness of satire: (a) its indirect nature, which makes it
difficult for subjects to recognize the speaker's main argument thesis, and (b) the fact that
a speaker may experience a loss in ethos by using satire. Therefore, if researchers better
understand the relationship between an audience member's levels of identification with,
and comprehension of a humorous source, the data may reflect the true nature of the
phenomenon more accurately. Qualitative techniques can be extremely powerful and
produce valuable insights about how a particular group of individuals perceive messages
in this manner.
As discussed earlier, experimental studies examining media effects and political
measures have had limited success explaining the complex relationships between these
variables, primarily due to the inherent difficulty in determining the direction of
causation. Researchers have consistently wrestled with issues of validity in experimental
designs whose measures depend upon separating an individual's political attitudes and
level of political interest from the individual media consumption because they will
interact positively due to self-selection (Volgy & Schwarz, 1980). The weak empirical
support previously reported concerning humor and information gain echoes these
concerns. In the quantitative studies reviewed concerning humor and information gain,
the researchers acknowledge that their findings suffered from an inability to control their
source manipulations successfully.
Although qualitative research relies on inductive reasoning, it is important to
recognize that the researcher brings an initial understanding of the issues to the table.
The qualitative researcher has experience, often personal in nature, of the subjects) to be
examined, and this knowledge base helps him to formulate a research design
(McCracken, 1988). As discussed in the Preface, the researcher has watched The Daily
.\,Vii' and conducted research on this topic over the last several years. However, at this
point it is important to investigate the issue more formally, and in greater depth. Prior
knowledge will be instrumental in helping to guide the research design; however, there
are many unanswered questions and relationships to be explored.
A multi-method qualitative approach was used to gather data. This approach
combines several qualitative methods: the long interview, focus groups, and participant
diaries. Method triangulation allowed the researcher to compare results from several
different sources, increasing the data reliability (Lindlof, 1995). The author conducted
all focus groups and one-on-one interviews, as well as the resultant transcriptions.
Diarists were responsible for keeping their own notes.
An important difference that separates quantitative and qualitative research is the
construction of the participant sample pool. Quantitative research relies heavily upon its
ability to produce results that can be generalized to the population at large. This requires
researchers to gather data from large sample pools that are representative of the larger
population. In contrast
the purpose of the qualitative interview is not to discover how many, and what
kinds of, people share a certain characteristic. It is to gain access to the cultural
categories and assumptions according to which one culture construes the world.
How many and what kinds of people hold these categories and assumptions is not,
in fact, the compelling issue. It is the categories and assumptions, not those who
hold them, that matter. (McCraken, 1988, p. 17)
However, the researcher determined that, to help increase trustworthiness for the
findings, participants should be recruited from the local community as well as from the
university population. The following sections outline the literature on qualitative
gathering techniques and the specific conditions used in this study.
All data for this study were collected between May 2004 and November 2004.
The data collection methods were combined over the time frame in order to include
interview, focus group, and diary data over the course of collection period. Participants
were recruited from the local community as well as from the university population so that
the data would incorporate TDS viewers outside of a strict student demographic. Various
methods of recruitment were utilized, including classified advertisements in the
University of Florida campus newspaper (the Alligator), a notice in two community
monthly magazines (The Satellite, The Iguana), and postings on a community listserv
(Civic Media Center) and web-community, Gainesvillebands.com (GBDC). The
researcher also recruited participants on campus holding a sign that read "Do you watch
the Daily .h\/,,i i ilh Jon Stewart?" and in the local community by word-of mouth.
Word-of mouth proved to be a highly effective method of recruiting as people learned
that research about The Daily .\/Nii was being done, and forwarded the information to
friends who watch the show. As a result, the data pool reflects a broader demographic
than if recruitment had been restricted solely to campus. The researcher was looking for
participants who watch TDS. Thus, all recruitment ads simply stated, "Do you watch the
Daily .sh,\,i i /h Jon Si.,1in it as a prerequisite. No frequency parameters were given,
so the data pool consists of occasional to frequent TDS viewers. The ads also mentioned
that a doctoral student was conducting dissertation research and that a monetary incentive
was being offered, but no specific dollar amount was given in the ad. The monetary
amount was left open in order to encourage more people to call and learn about the
research project. All focus group and interview participants were paid $10 for their
participation and refreshments were provided. Because of the more involved nature of
the diary data collection, each diarist was paid $50. All associated data collection costs
were self-funded by the researcher.
All focus groups and interviews were audio-taped to free the researcher from
having to take notes and provide a comprehensive record of the dialogue. Audiotaping
was chosen over videotaping to alleviate any unease participants might experience over
being videotaped. In addition, the researcher had better access to audio equipment, and
as several interviews and focus groups were done in public, video cameras would have
been much more visible. All focus groups and interviews were conducted by the
researcher, as well as all data transcription.
A short survey (Appendix A) was administered to participants immediately
following their participation in order to collect demographic data and to provide specific
information about TDS viewing habits.
Focus groups are considered group interviews in qualitative research. The
dynamic changes, however, because focus groups exploit participant interaction to
"produce data insights that would be less accessible without the interaction found in a
group" (Morgan, 1997, p. 10). The focus groups were conducted using a more structured
approach. Compared to a less structured approach, structured focus groups generally
follow a predetermined set of questions that center around the researcher's preexisting
agenda (Morgan, 1997).1
For focus groups, 6 to 10 participants are usually recommended per group,
although this range is a suggestion, not a fixed rule. Larger groups often require more
moderator control, whereas issues that elicit high levels of participant involvement might
lead the researcher to prefer a smaller group (Morgan, 1997). In determining the number
of focus groups that need to be conducted, saturation-i.e., "the point at which additional
data collection no longer generates new understanding" (Morgan, 1997, p. 43)-is the
goal. However, as Morgan (1997) notes, "variability of the participants, both with and
across groups" (p. 43) is an important factor in determining the number of groups
necessary. While three to five focus groups is a general rule for qualitative research,
groups comprised of more heterogeneous participants tend to require more total groups
"because the diversity in the group often makes it more difficult to sort out coherent sets
of opinions and experiences" (Morgan, 1997, p. 44). However, as Morgan (1997)
cautions, any study using focus groups must require a minimum of two focus groups (per
segment) to avoid potential bias within one particular setting.
Four focus groups were conducted, between July 26, 2004, and November 1,
2004. The first focus group was organized by one participant who answered an
advertisement about the research and said that a number of people in his dormitory
watched TDS and would probably be interested in participating. The researcher
1See Appendix B for the focus group and interview question guide.
coordinated with him and set up a focus group, which was conducted at a University of
Florida student housing complex at which all of the participants lived. Some of the
participants did know each other and were friends, but because the nature of this research
was not considered to be extremely personal in nature, the researcher determined that this
familiarity would not be a deterrent. In addition, because the study was investigating
levels of identification, it was thought that the inclusion of these data might elicit
additional insight into respondents attitudes towards this construct.
The second and third focus groups consisted of participants gathered via the
techniques described earlier: newspaper advertisements, the GBDC website, and word-
of-mouth. Both of these focus groups were held at a local restaurant located in a
convenient downtown location. Participants for the fourth focus group were recruited via
an advertisement in the campus newspaper and from the researcher going on the
university campus holding a sign which read "Do you watch The Daily .\lrl, ii h/ Jon
.Sl,\ at I"" The final focus group consisted entirely of undergraduate students and was
held in a classroom on the university campus.
As McCracken (1988) notes, the long interview method enables the researcher to
access "the mental world of the individual, to glimpse the categories and logic by which
he or she sees the world" (p. 9). This quote echoes the tenets of the symbolic
interactionist perspective. How better to understand the way in which a person views the
world, or a specific slice of it, than to ask him or her about it? It is important to
recognize, however, that many people have difficulty responding accurately to direct
questioning. Some may feel that they need to engage in impression management for
various reasons; this can be deliberate or unconscious. Therefore, the researcher must be
prepared to uncover the information he or she seeks indirectly, and via well-planned
question guides (McCraken, 1988).
McCracken (1988) suggests that qualitative researchers are better served to
conduct more in-depth interviews with fewer participants. In general, eight in-depth
interviews are considered sufficient for qualitative research.
In line with McCracken's suggestions, eight long interviews were conducted.
Interviews were conducted during the period from May 27, 2004, through October 12,
2004. Interview respondents were gathered via many of the same techniques as the focus
group participants: classified advertisements in local community and campus
newspapers, posts on the GainesvilleBands.com website, and word-of-mouth. Interviews
took place at various locations, predominately at local coffeehouses and restaurants. In
addition, two interviews were conducted at a local civic media center. In general, the
interviewer would arrange to meet a location convenient for the interviewee.
Participant diaries are another qualitative method that may be employed in data
collection. This method requires participants to record their thoughts about the object
under inquiry (in this case, TDS: its cast, content, and delivery)
Again, "qualitative methods are most useful and powerful when they are used to
discover how the respondent sees the world" (McCraken, 1988, p. 21). This is precisely
the line of inquiry this investigation seeks to discover. The research questions revolve
around the meanings viewers of The Daily .\lN,i', particularly members of the Generation
X demographic, attach to the program. Research indicates that the meanings viewers
attach to the program will largely be a result of cultural socialization. The "frames"
individuals develop influence their view of the world, and mold their beliefs, their
preferences, and their inclinations. Thus, to unearth these abstract concepts, a qualitative
methodology is the most desirable approach.
Much like a personal diary, diarists in the study were asked to record thoughts
about the show, and were encouraged to include any relevant emotions that the program
elicited. Diary participants were recruited through an ad in the university campus
newspaper, The Alligator. As with recruitment of other methods, the ad stated that a
doctoral student was doing research and needed people who "watch The Daily .\lN/,, i, i h/
Jon Stewart." Diary participants were told that they would be paid $50 for watching The
Daily .\lN/,ii for one week and recording entries (a full week of Daily Show viewing
constitutes four original programs).
The researcher met with the four prospective diarists (2 males, 2 females) to
explain the nature of the task and to answer any questions that the participants might
have. At this initial meeting, participants also signed the required study release forms.
The researcher instructed the diarists to watch the show with a pen and paper and to jot
down any thoughts that came to mind, and to continue to write during commercials, and
immediately after viewing the show to promote more accurate reflections. In addition to
recording thoughts specifically in conjunction with watching the program, diarists were
also encouraged to include relevant impressions or encounters concerning the show that
they might experience after the fact. Diary participants were instructed to note any
communications (mass mediated or interpersonal) they were exposed to in relation to
TDS viewing. For example, if a diarist engaged in a conversation about the show with a
friend, that exchange should be included in the diary to the fullest extent possible,
including any relevant thought processes that might have emerged during or after the
Because The Daily .\lshe, is broadcast several times a day, participants were
instructed to note which broadcast they viewed (or if they viewed more than one). Also,
diarists were told to note whether the program was watched alone or with others. Despite
providing these specific instructions, the researcher was careful not to coach the
participants too much about what was expected concerning the viewer's experience.
Diarists were simply instructed to write any thoughts that were elicited by watching the
program and to record any relevant thoughts or discussions that occurred regarding the
show. The participants were encouraged to include any information they chose, and to
include "more" rather than "less" if they were unsure of the relevance of a potential item.
For example, a viewer might see one of the show's correspondents on a television
commercial promoting a product and have attitudes regarding whether the correspondent
was violating his "objectivity." In addition, diarists were also asked to write an
introductory entry about TDS. Ideally, the goal of the diary method was to obtain data
that is self-generated by the participants, not elicited by the researcher. So again, the
researcher was careful not to coach the diarist too much, and simply told them to include
some background information about their relationship with the show, for example how
long had they been watching the show and any relevant reflections of their experience
with the show.
Participants were asked to turn in a printed copy of their entries, along with a
disk, CD, or email copy of the transcript. The researcher picked up the data for each
diary in person, and at that time asked the participant to complete the survey. Once the
survey was completed and diary obtained, the participant was paid $50 in cash for his or
Incorporating several data-gathering methods strengthened the validity of the
findings. By analyzing responses from a variety of methods the researcher could better
observe patterns that emerged across situations and contexts and develop a more
comprehensive narrative about the mediated experience of The Daily .,\/,,i viewer.
All focus group and interview audio transcription was conducted by the
researcher. Transcriptions were done consecutively along with the research (i.e., the
researcher would conduct an interview [or focus group] and then transcribe the audio in
the following days). Diaries were written by the participants themselves and turned in to
the researcher. The researcher took the completed transcripts from all three data
collections and made three photocopy reprints. One hard copy was kept intact for
As discussed earlier, the research approach for this study was an inductive, rather
than a deductive one. To this end, the researcher began analysis by first reading through
all the transcripts. In line with qualitative methodology, no attempts to categorize
information were made during this initial reading (Lindlof, 1995). At this point, the
researcher's goals were simply to acquaint herself with the whole of the material to begin
to sense common emergent themes.3
After the initial read-through was completed, the interview and focus group texts
were reviewed line by line and coded. At this point, in order to help organize the data,
folders were created representing the initial categories that emerged. The researcher then
2In addition to paper copies, transcripts were also saved to disk for archival.
3The researcher did conduct all interviews and transcriptions, so an initial level of
familiarity with the data was expected. However, despite this, the researcher felt that it
was important to review the data in its entirety before beginning a detailed analysis.
cut up the transcripts and placed each coded entry in its appropriate folder. If an entry
was determined to be relevant in more than one category, it was placed in as many
folders as warranted. Analytic induction required the researcher to continually review
the data to refine themes and categories (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984). Once the initial
analysis was completed, the entire process was repeated until the final themes and
categories were determined. After this final analysis of focus group and interview data,
the diary data were then analyzed. Because the diary data were not structured in a
question format like the interview and focus group data, it was determined that analyzing
these data groups separately would be a good method to evaluate the trustworthiness of
the emerging categories. The categories constructed from the interview and focus group
data did align with the diary data. After analysis was complete, member checks were
conducted with seven participants to help validate the trustworthiness of the findings and
to ensure that the respondents intentions were accurately represented.
The following chapter presents the views generated by the participants concerning
TDS and associated themes. To provide the most accurate representation, in many
instances raw data, that is the participant's own words, are included. This method of
thick description is recommended in qualitative research to help increase internal
reliability, and to provide evidence to guide others interested in evaluating the
researcher's conclusions (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984).
This investigation originally posed several questions around which to structure its
research. Foremost, the researcher sought to learn more about the meanings TDS viewers
attach to the program, particularly members of Generation X. Research questions
addressed whether viewers consider the show as more of an entertainment or as a news
program, whether they perceive the information presented on TDS as credible, and
whether they identify with a larger symbolic community. To a large degree, these
categories overlap, and the discussions cross-reference these issues. Prior to presenting
the findings, however, a brief review of the study participants is provided.
Data were collected from a total of 35 interviews, focus groups, and diary
participants.1 The mean age was 25, with a range between 18 and 40. The gender
breakdown resulted in a total of 21 male and 14 female participants. Caucasians were the
predominant ethnicity represented, comprising 74% of the data set (26 respondents). The
remaining 26% of the respondents were Hispanic (4), Black (1), biracial (1), and three
participants who classified themselves as other.2 In terms of the respondents'
occupations, the data set included 17 undergraduate students, 7 graduate students, 8
professionals and 2 who listed their occupation as "other." A breakdown of each data
1 All respondent names have been changed in this paper to protect anonymity.
2 Ethnicity choices were listed as White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Other.
gathering method is provided below and additional demographic information is available
in Appendix A.3
Four focus groups were conducted, between July 26, 2004, and November 1,
2004. A total of 24 people, 15 males and 9 females, participated, with the breakdown as
S July 26, 2004-3 males, 3 females, age range 21-25
* August 11, 2004-5 males, 2 females, age range 20-33
S October 26, 2004-4 males, 1 female, age range 30-40
* November 1, 2004-3 males, 3 females, age range 18-23
The focus groups included college students, both graduate and undergraduate, as
well as nonstudents. Although the majority of the participants were White, several
participants were from ethnic backgrounds. There were a total of four Hispanics (three
males, and one female), one biracial (White and African-American) female, and three
"Other" (one male and two females).
Interviews were conducted during the period from May 27, 2004, through
October 12, 2004. Five males and three females participated, and the age range spanned
from 20 to 31 years. As with the focus groups, the interviews included participants from
both the student and professional population. All of the interview participants listed
"White" as their ethnic background.
The diary data were gathered during the week of August 23, 2004, and
programming included then-Presidential nominee John Kerry as a guest, and a rerun of
former-President Clinton's appearance. Despite numerous coordination efforts, one
participant did not turn in his diary; thus, the diary data samples were restricted to three
3One participant from the first focus group did not fill out a post-survey so the
only data included for her are gender and ethnicity. The gender variable was observable,
and she discussed her ethnicity (Other) during the focus group discussion.
journals. The final demographics for the diary participants were two females, one white,
the other African-American, and one white male. All three diarists were undergraduate
students at the University of Florida. The diarists ranged in age from 20 to 24.
Overall, the data revealed three key themes regarding participants' perceptions of
TDS. First, participants viewed TDS as a media satire/news parody show. Second,
although all participants considered the TDS to be a media satire/news parody, they were
divided regarding whether they perceived it to be strictly an entertainment program, or
whether they regarded it as a new genre of news program. The final theme,
respectability, addresses how respondents operationalized credibility regarding the
Theme #1-TDS is a Media Satire/News Parody
Overwhelmingly, TDS viewers perceive the news industry as failing in its mission
to provide relevant analytic coverage to the public. Respondents said that trends such as
corporate concentration and a political backlash after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have
contributed toward a weakened news industry that oftentimes crosses the line into
entertainment and partisanship. As Don lamented, "News, entertainment-it's all the
same thing." Or as Rich said during a discussion of where TDS fits into today's political
media environment, "I mean the real news is a joke too." Julie offered a similar opinion:
I think another reason people would watch [TDS] it is because they're
disillusioned by the media. And you know, they watch CNN, they watch Fox and
they figure, well that's fiction also, so I might as well just watch TDS, because
either way it's going to be fiction.
As such, they see TDS as a forum for satirical commentary about the declining
state of the news and media industries. For example, Aaron said,
It parodies the news of the day. Also mainly I think it parodies the media. And
how they [TDS] report the news seems to be focusing more on spoofing the way
news is reported rather than the actual news itself most of the time, which I
appreciate because I think the media's ridiculous most of the time.
Jeff expressed similar sentiments:
It definitely tries to bring out some of the absurdity of like what's happening in
news and the fact that maybe we shouldn't take things quite so seriously, or at
least we should try to examine them and have an opinion about them instead of
ignoring them because it's too painful to swallow or whatever.
Denise's diary entry lent additional support to this perspective and addressed the element
of "reality" that is necessary for successful satire. She wrote,
I believe that what makes anything funny-really funny, is by how close to the
truth it really is-the more true, the funnier anything is ... its kind of a rule of
comedy and one that "The Daily .h,\//,"' hits the nail on the head just about every
As Aaron also stated, Denise is referring to the manner by which TDS, "really
questions how the media reports the news and spoofs the media." Or as Jerry
commented, "It's like if the media is the fourth check and balance of the government,
than The Daily .\l,N, is the fifth-the check on the media." As Chris said,
He's [Jon Stewart] given satire a new purpose. It's not just satire to make people
laugh. A lot more people sit up and listen now, to Jon Stewart and Lewis Black.
They've started to really straddle that line between, I guess, comic and pundit.
It's not just satire to be funny anymore. They're not just making fun of people
because they want to get a laugh. They're making fun of people because they
think these people need to be made fun of-people need to sit up and listen. It's
given, I guess, a new respect to their field, kind of-their own new little breed of
Sarah shared a similar opinion, and credited the satire on TDS with the following:
Expos[ing] the media and the political system in a way that no one else does, and
in a way the public needs to know. TDS has made me know that I can't
always trust what I read in the paper, or what I see on CNN or presidential
debates. It's made me question the media and the political system.
Robert offered an interesting perspective on the role the program plays with
regard to mainstream media. He suggested that TDS provides one of the most accessible
platforms for the alternative press:
I really do think that TDS, Micheal Moore's movies, Air America you know, all
these things are-they fit in as like, the "alternative press" that I think has been
marginalized in a way but somehoweither because they're using humor, or they're
on a bigger stage those folks [TDS] haven't been marginalized in a certain way,
that it's more accessible, so that it's more acceptable-you know like, like
rounding up the Iguana4, or finding In These Times or going to some website-it
takes a lot of-it takes some energy, and because The Daily .\lN/, is on TV when
you're winding down the day, you know I think it fills a real niche, and like I
said, I think because they're looking at things and talking about things in a way
that fits in with people's experiences, and the way that they're looking at the
world, you know, I think it, that why I said I kinda don't like it when he says
they're a fake news program because I think in some ways, they're undervaluing
their own role, especially in younger people's understanding of the world.
In trying to categorize TDS, late-night talk shows and comedy sketch shows such
as Saturday Night Live (SNL) were mentioned frequently as comparisons. As Paul said,
As far as I'm concerned it's basically just a late-night talk show with a twist that's
it's made in the format of a news show as opposed to a late-night talk show.
Instead of having Johnny Carson coming up talking about the news, format of a
newscast. They may have one guest or two and then they have reports. That's
what makes it different I guess.
Eva had a similar response and said, "Well it's kind of a cross between the Letterman
format, and the whole SNL news format."
However, respondents offered contrasting views on whether TDS differs from its
predecessors in terms of the effectiveness of its satire. Kaya compared TDS to other late-
night talk shows, such as The Tonight ,\/e,ii i i/th Jay Leno:
For years they've been making fun of the news, and it's just been for a cheap
laugh-they want that punchline. When you're watching Jon Stewart, I don't
think you're really looking, ok, well it's just a cheap punchline now it's satire
with a purpose, so it's cool.
4The Iguana is a local alternative newspaper.
While Kaya credited the satire on TDS as being more effective than prior shows
in the genre, Aaron voiced disappointment that the show isn't more hard-hitting:
It's interesting because it [TDS] evolved a lot from being your typical just kind of
what SNL did with their news when they first started into something very original.
It's hard to describe really what they're doing, but, it's a news parody show I
guess [but] ... I think sometimes they [TDS] play to the easier laugh, rather
than question it, or spoof it.
In the final focus group an exchange occurred regarding this issue, and
respondents concluded that TDS and Stewart are more of a target now because they are at
the forefront of the genre:
Fred: I think it's going to take a little bit more time-because I think that a lot of
older people, and this is pure conjecture, probably still think of it as that goofy,
jokey new show. In time it will get up there with Leno and Letterman and Johnny
Carson. People will begin to acknowledge it as something more than that goofy
news show that's on after dirty puppets.
Kaya: You make a good point with Jay Leno. No one questions when Jay Leno's
doing his like, monologue in the beginning, like, "Oh hey-did you watch Jay
Leno last night? Was that real, or was that not?" He spoofs factual news too, like
anyone else does. The reason Jon Stewart gets so much flak from politicians or
O'Reilly, or whoever it may be, is because he does it the best.
Ed: Yea, nobody watches Jay Leno anymore, so he's not really a media focal
point. You know, real news, or fake comedy, or real news, or whatever he was,
Kaya: Jon Stewart's pretty much like the new frontier, like the main head figure,
so that's why they're basically focusing on him instead of Conan O'Brien or
someone that still has his loyal audience, but you know ...
Chris: Well it's because the show is, it's jokes with a point. It's edged humor,
and it's there for a purpose.
Another show that was suggested when respondents were trying to categorize
TDS was The Chappelle .\lh,i'. Broadcast on Comedy Central, The Chappelle .\lhN,' is a
half-hour comedy-sketch show hosted by Dave Chappelle, an African-American stand-up
comedian, well known for his satire on social, political and racial issues. Respondents
compared the satire on The Chappelle ./,/,i to TDS. As Robert explained:
If you watch SNL or Mad TV or some other sketch type thing-you know what's
even a better example these days, is like the Chappelle Show-where he's like
taking things that are going on, and he's too taking them too far and making a
joke about it and stuff like that. And again, I don't think anyone would watch it
even for the first time and think, "Oh, this is a news show." It's sort of like
reading the opinions page.
Some respondents commented that the material on The Chappelle ./,,,i is less
accessible to broader audiences than the content on TDS. The following exchange
between Don and Tade illustrates the issue well. Tade began by talking about the feature
correspondents on TDS and the conversation progressed into a comparison and
explanation of the different genres:
Dave: I think he [Jon Stewart] has to put those things in [ie: feature
correspondents] just so it's like universally funny to everyone. Because if he just
did it solely on politics people wouldn't watch it you know.
Tade: I agree. But I still think a lot of people don't watch it [TDS] because it is
politics. I think that a lot of people are just like South Park and Reno 911, and
Chappelle Show, things you can just kind of like zone out to.
Dave: I appreciate that too.
Tade: I do too. I love that.
Dave: Chappelle Show has a lot of social commentary.
Tade: It does, but from a different perspective.
Dave: Yea, like they deal with stuff that like almost the hip hop culture would. I
mean I'm not gonna say the hip hop culture, but like youth oriented. Cause they
do skits like real-world, Little John. These are stuff like my parents can watch
TDS and can appreciate it, but they don't know who Little John is. You know
what I'm saying? Stuff like that.
Robert also commented on the fact that the satire on TDS includes nonpolitical
coverage, and said that this type of humor was what initially drew him into the show:
I got hooked, because of some of the non-political segments, like the guy Ed
Helms, does this like tech talk, and I was like almost wetting my pants, because
he was like [saying] how great digital cameras and all this stuff is, and he was
supposed to be demonstrating it all, and like none of it was working, and he's
trying to plug it in, and it's so close to reality. When you see a story like that on
the news its like, "The digital camera will drive your car, and put your kids to
bed," and like I see my mom reacting to these commercials on TV, or whatever,
like AOL, and then get frustrated, because AOL doesn't work that way-it's
slow, and like he was poking fun at that, and it was real, and I was like, oh this is
hilarious. And then I started watching it and got more hooked on, sort of their
political spin on things.
Despite the fact that all respondents felt TDS succeeds as a media satire/news
parody program, participants differed as to whether they regarded the show as strictly an
entertainment program, or an entertaining method of receiving the news. The next
section looks more directly at how participants categorized the program specifically.
Theme #2-Entertainment Program vs. New Genre of News Program
While all the respondents regarded TDS as a news and media satire program, two
distinct views surfaced in the data: those who regarded the program strictly as a source of
entertainment, and those who considered TDS to be a new genre of news programming.
As Ted said, "I don't watch it for news. I think it's humorous, so I watch it for
entertainment, personally." Elsie also emphasized the entertainment value of the show
and said she did not consider it as a news source, "I watch it because I think it's really
Many of the respondents who said that they considered TDS primarily an
entertainment program, also commented that they were news "junkies," and got their
news from a number of sources. As Rich said, "I watch it for entertainment. I mean I'm
kind of a political junkie. I watch Hardball and Meet the Press and all those shows so
this is kind of nice to just get, you know .. political commentary and comic spin."
Ricardo also shared that he does not consider TDS as a source for news:
I watch it for entertainment, for the laughs. It's not my source of news-I have
plenty of other sources for that. But I do like the way they couch commentary
with humor. And I think that's a real effective way to criticize policies.
As evidenced in the quotes above, despite the fact that respondents characterize
TDS as providing "political commentary," some still do not consider it as a news source.
Moreover, some expressed concern that viewers would use it as a primary source of
news. As Elsie said, "I think since they do make jokes out of it, I don't think that they
expect people to watch them-they don't expect just the average person to turn on The
Daily h\/e,,i to get news." And Paul voices his doubts that viewers would use TDS as a
I really don't think a whole lot of people rely on it to tell them all the issues of the
world, inform them completely, and tell me who to vote for and tell me what to
think about this. I think they say like 38% get their fake news or something like
that [from TDS], but I'd be pretty skeptical to think that for that whole 38% that is
their sole news source, and they don't get their opinions based on something else.
I would hope so.
Ricardo voiced similar sentiments, but broadens the scope to include people who get
their news from any single source, "I've read that there's a certain percentage of TDS
viewers for whom TDS is their main source of news. And I find that as frightening as the
percentage of people for whom the Fox Channel is their only source of news."
Despite the fact that these respondents consider the show as entertainment, they
do not discount the fact that it does contain information. They appear however, to view
the show as more of a supplement to the news, presented in an entertaining way, not
necessarily as a valid source independently. As Peter said, "You can't look at The Daily
.shli,, as a news program, you have to take it as a humorous adaptation of current events."
The following exchange from the focus group held on July 26th presented this
Veronica: I think it falls more toward entertainment. I wouldn't think of it as a
hard core news source. I'd watch it for entertainment and then it would bring up
some news sources and then when I'd go watch a national news source I might
think of The Daily .\/h,ii', or vice versa, but I wouldn't think of it as [a news
source, I'd think of it as] entertainment that happens to be on Comedy Central.
Paul: I guess I agree with her. I tend to know the story first. And then I come to
TDS and if I kind of agree with his assessment of it, or not even that necessarily
but, think that if he addressed the actual story, you know, I'll probably find it
really funny, and then I'll enjoy most of the show.
The following quotes provide additional insight into why viewers watch TDS: the
program offers relief from the negativity of traditional news programs. As Aaron said,
I watch it for comedy. It makes me laugh. I don't get my news from it. I'm a
pretty avid news junkie myself, I follow the news all day, I get my news from a
number of different sources-TV, Internet, radio. But I love to get, now since the
news is always so serious and usually depressing, it's nice to be able to laugh at it.
But it's just a funny show, it makes me laugh.
Paul shared similar sentiments:
It's really nice after listening to the news and reading really serious books about
how this is going to have serious impact on not just you but the future of your
whole country ... it's nice to watch issues lampooned on TDS and it helps you to
breathe a sigh of relief to think, you know what, it's going to be alright, because if
they can show Dennis Hastert5 in a dress, then it's all good."
As discussed, some viewers regard TDS as primarily an entertainment program,
despite the fact that they may acknowledge that the show may contain information. They
consider the show primarily as escapist entertainment. This perspective contrasts with
others who responded that they watch TDS "to get my news" (Bert), and "to get the 'real'
news" (Marion). While some respondents expressed doubt over people potentially using
TDS as a main source of news, others clearly stated that they do consider the show as a
legitimate outlet. As Jeff said, "Honestly, it's [TDS] my primary news source. It's the
only honest news show I've ever seen." And Daniel commented, "I'd say if you add it
5Current Speaker of the House of Representatives.
all up they've [TDS] got less bullshit than the rest of the news." Within this group a
number of respondent also commented that they were heavy news consumers; however,
for these respondents, the show is more than an entertaining supplement to mainstream
news. They consider TDS to be a unique program that offers an alternative perspective
on current issues. As Leslie said, although it borrows from familiar genres, ie: news,
sketch comedy, and late-night talk shows, the format is an innovative one that breaks new
I wouldn't put it in the same category as like a CNN or something like that. It's
kind of like it's own separate entity in that sense. Because it is mixing a lot of
pop culture and a lot of comedy and news, all being intertwined into one... I feel
like it's almost this bastardization in between news and comedy, because the two
seem like such separate realms to me-I really see it as creating a new little path
Catherine voices this perspective almost verbatim, "I think it's [TDS] kind of like,
breaking ground for a new type of show and a new like, viewpoint on media today,
definitely." That the show doesn't fit neatly into a preexisting format seems to fuel the
difficulty in classifying it as a news program. Echoing the sentiments of others who
consider the TDS as a new genre of programming, Don commented, "I don't think they
should say it's real news, I don't think they should say it's fake news, I think they should
just bill it as TDS and put it out there." Or as Robert proposed, "I mean I guess you could
argue that it's redefining what a news show is." In this vein, some respondents voiced
the belief that despite being labeled as "the fake news," TDS provides a better context of
political issues for their viewers. As Julie said,
I would say he's as analytic, if not more, as the political pundits you watch on
CNN. He [Stewart] says some pretty deep stuff. Just the other day he was talking
about the contradictions in one of George W. Bush's speeches and it was
something that I don't think people at CNN or Fox would even want to approach.
It is interesting to note that in this context a number of respondents referenced the
notion that the show has evolved over the course of time into more of a political show.
Respondents gave three reasons for the evolution of the show into a more political forum:
Jon Stewart taking over as host, the current political climate, and the sense that the show
provides an appealing format that politically engages younger viewers.
Respondents clearly commented on the notion that TDS has evolved into more of
a politically relevant show since its launch. This change is largely credited to Jon
Stewart taking over the show from the original host, Craig Kilborn. As Jeff explained,
I'm just surprised at how much the show has evolved. And like become
respectable I guess, and such a great source for news. I remember watching it in
the early days, like back before they had the audience and back when they had
Crag Kilborn and it was like really just a much different kind of show.
Catherine addressed this issue partly in terms of the caliber of guests the show has now
as compared to when Kilborn hosted:
Even though Craig Kilborn is funny I don't find him to be as smart [as Jon
Stewart]-before if was more entertainers it seemed like. Or it was more like a
talk show kind of thing, kind of format. And it had really great contributors and
all that kind of stuff, but now it seems to be more political because Jon Stewart
has that knowledge to make it like that.
Others contrasted Stewart's experience as a politically oriented stand-up
comedian, with Kilborn's sports-anchor roots. As Julie noted:
I was just taken aback by how intelligent he [Stewart] is, and political and
knowledgeable ... I like that it's [TDS] getting more and more political.
Because a few years ago, you know with Craig Kilborn on the show, you couldn't
really tell what his political opinion was, but I like that Jon Stewart, more of him
comes out in every show.
Another factor in the show's evolution that respondents commented upon was the
impact of the current political climate on the news industry as a whole. Respondents
highlighted several issues that have affected the topical content of TDS and respondents
views concerning media coverage: the fact that data were collected post 9/11, during a
preelection period, and during a period while the country was at war. Some viewers
expressed the opinion that these issues have played a role in transforming TDS from
more of an entertainment-oriented show into a more politically-oriented one. Elsie has
watched the show for a number of years and said, "I think, like, especially for this
election it's definitely part of the news. Like it seems more news oriented and politically,
than just entertainment lately."
During the final focus group, which took place the night before the 2004
Presidential election, Kaya voiced her opinion that during the political season it seemed
more appropriate for TDS to have political figures as guests, as opposed to entertainment
[I prefer] the political figures, however, because this being, you know, the time
where it's like voting, and the whole voting season, it's almost odd when you see
someone outside of the political [world] on it. Like if someone's promoting a
movie, you're like, "Oh, OK," and it's kind of weird, just right now because
you're just so used to the political heads.
Kaya's view expressed the sense among some viewers that the more
entertainment-oriented, punchline-driven coverage was a luxury that the country could
not afford during that time. As Eva noted,"people are more politically engaged today
because of what's going on in the world." Or as Harry said,
Clearly it's filling a niche. There's a demand for it. There's a space where
people want to be entertained, yet they want to have somewhat factual
information and have somebody explain to them in a very funny, poignant
way-eloquent way, what's going on. And I think a lot of those folks, you know,
probably fit in our shoes. You know, we're curious about what else is there,
we're not really seeing that from CNN or especially Fox, so he [Stewart] does do
something that someone hasn't done. I don't know if ever. So it seems like a
really new animal as far as entertainment and politics is concerned.
Within this dimension of TDS as a "new animal," many respondents expressed
the view that the show potentially could be a positive force to engage younger people in
the political process. As Fred said,
It's a good way for people who don't watch the news, particularly young people,
to be introduced to what's going on in the world and make them want to be more
involved in reading the news and watching the news-discussing the news. He's
[Stewart] very good at you know, sucking people in with the funniness, and then
actually making a serious point once in a while to you know, keep the brain
I guess to like people like me and to people my age, I don't see anything wrong
with using them [TDS] as a legitimate news outlet. I mean it's not too much
different to me than reading a politically slanted news magazine. Everything you
get with news comes through a filter, so I'd rather have it through a really funny
And Tade pointed out that the show offers politicians a platform to reach the
This is their opportunity [politicians], because like most people our age aren't
watching politics, and this is like their chance, to like you know, I mean it's a
shame, but this is their chance to reach out. If this is what's going to get young
people in politics, I hope this is what facilitates it.
As Eva said,
I think that TDS appeals to this whole segment of the population that used to be
sort of the young, who-gives-a-fuck generation. Politically disengaged, in a way
that does take them in, and engage them politically and I think that that is good. I
mean there's so much out there. Obviously yes, people should be getting their
news from other sources but like, SNL, is not particularly political. This is
humor that is informative, and I think that is a really good thing. So in that sense,
I'm glad that they're playing a political role.
In fact, some participants credited the show with getting them more involved in politics.
Veronica is 21-years-old and shared the following:
I really just started watching the news. I put it on once a day for like 15-20
minutes, to get a feel of what's going on, actually like more toward the tail of the
Clinton administration, and then up and coming Bush's presidency, so ... I think
the Monica Lewinsky thing was such a big deal, and they parodied it so much on
TDS it kind of like drew me in, and then after that, I stuck with it.
Sarah, a 21-year-old college student had a similar experience:
Yea, it sort of filled me in on certain things, because I didn't pay very close
attention to the news before, before I could vote, and when I started watching it
[TDS] in 2000, when they did the election coverage back then. And as I've
progressed as a person who watches it, I've become more involved in current
events and things like that, so I know who the big politicians are, and the big
people in our government.
Fred, a 19-year-old college student, suggested that the show's success in
motivating its viewers to become more active political participants stems from its ability
to expose the inconsistencies and absurdities in the system. "I think it [TDS] kinda
makes fun of the system so bad you'll think about it more and want to be involved and
see how stupid the system is and want to do something to get out there and make it better.
At least in my opinion."
For this study the data revealed three overall categories that define how credible
viewers perceive TDS: Respectability, Bias, and Program format. They are reviewed
Respectability was operationalized via two primary constructs: legitimacy
through press coverage and increased caliber of political guests. In the August 11th
focus group, Jerry discussed the fact that a number of news organizations have begun
rerunning clips of TDS on their nightly newscasts. He said, "I think that the reason for
that is it's such an accurate representation of the news media in general." The rest of the
group voiced agreement, and raised an interesting point: if so-called "news" shows are
showing clips of TDS, does that legitimize it as news?
Certainly the show has become more prominent in recent years, and received a
good deal of attention from the mainstream media prior to the 2004 Presidential election.
As Jeff said,
I think they've made themselves surprisingly important. Like I mean they
definitely have the Indecision 2004, and their Presidential coverage is
fantastic-it's biting, acerbic and wonderful and exactly what I'd like to see from
like coverage as something as ridiculous as the presidential election usually turns
out to be ... I think they've also become surprisingly respectable, I mean
considering that they are the fake news, and they call themselves the fake news.
They get all sorts of political guests on there.
Respondents made a number of references to the higher caliber of political guests
on TDS as an example of the show's increasing respectability. In the following quote
Aaron commented on this phenomenon:
It's definitely had an impact. It's absolutely had an impact. And you can tell
when you see the Tim Russert's and what's his name ... Bob Kerry, I think he
was the Democratic head of the 9/11 commission, if not he was a prominent
Democrat on the 9/11 commission. When the 9/11 commission was in the news
big time, right after Condoleeza Rice testified, and you know the stories every
day were coming out about what they were finding, he was on TDS, you know ...
he wasn't on Meet the Press, he wasn't on, you know any other show, he went on
TDS, which I thought was fascinating, this was a serious issue in this country and
a serious news story. And he's going on TDS, because he knows he can reach ...
a good number of young voters that way. Whether that's a good or a bad thing,
I'm not sure, you know? But during the Democratic primaries they all went on
TDS. John Edwards, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton ... I've seen Ed Gillespie,
Karen Hughes, people from the Bush administration, on TDS. So the politicians
are using it to get some message across-they're using it to reach some people.
So that tells you that it's definitely had an impact.
Tade expanded the scope of this construct to include the fact that TDS is now
operating in the same arena of political coverage as the more traditional news programs,
and that this access helps legitimize the show. He said, "They get big guests, they got
front row at the conventions. They've got some pull. I guess if they have some viewers
they can have some influence." And as Catherine commented,
They've gotten so much great praise, I mean they've won for their writing, and
their writers have all won awards ... I think their viewership is so high right
now, because the election is coming closer, and because they've won so many
awards recently. I mean, that's a big thing too-once you get the respect from the
community and the media, I think that more people will respect you as a news
source as well.
But not everyone thinks that the show's newfound respectability is positive thing.
When asked where he thought TDS fits into the current political environment, Jerry stated
that, "It's [TDS] more important than it should be." And Aaron commented, "It's
absolutely changing the media, which troubles me, but it's probably not a bad thing in that
they don't take themselves too seriously." Rich acknowledged the momentum the show
has generated, and commented that the increasing attention directed at the show was likely
unintended by the producers and principals. "It's kind of snowballing. It's become this
thing bigger than they thought it was going to be. They probably thought they were just
going to do this little comedy show."
Rich's comments came on the heels of a highly publicized appearance by Jon
Stewart on CNN's Crossfire.6 On October 15, 2004, Jon Stewart was a guest on the pundit-
style debate show. Initially the Crossfire hosts, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, went on
the offensive, attempting to minimize Stewart's credibility and egging him on to be funny.
The situation turned on them, however, when Stewart accused the show and its hosts of
being irresponsible journalists and failing the American public in their duty to keep them
informed about important matters of public policy. The exchange ignited a hailstorm of
publicity and placed Stewart in the center of a national debate concerning media credibility
and responsibility, and the current state of the news industry. Respondents' comments
concerning Stewart's Crossfire appearance are included in the upcoming source
6The Crossfire transcript can be found at
Many of the respondents commented on the issue of media credibility in general
and whether most news organizations practiced objective journalism, or tended to
provide more ideological coverage. This construct concerns respondents' perceptions of
bias, first concerning the news industry in general, and TDS in particular.
With regard to the news industry in general, many respondents voiced strong
opinions that disputed the traditionally held view of news organizations presenting
"objective" reports. In particular, Fox News and CNN were cited numerous times during
discussions of media bias and credibility, and used as a basis for comparison against
TDS. Jeff talked about the issue:
I think the industry is changing. It's very weird to me to go home and visit my
dad, and he watches fake-I mean Fox [slip unintentional] News, and he thinks
there isn't any bias in Fox News when I think there's an extremely clear bias in
Fox News, but Fox News of course claims that it is the only unbiased one. I
always thought CNN tried to be a non-biased news organization, and it seems, I
don't know, it seems Fox News with all its vitriol, and clear stance maybe attracts
Some respondents admonished the news programs and networks for presenting
the company line, either in an ideological sense, or as corporate entities, and said that
reduced their ability to trust the reports. As Leslie said, "The actual news is supposed to
be unbiased, which I mean, you kinda know that that's not really the way that it is, but
there are a lot of things, whether the anchors feel it or not, that they can't say." Don also
expressed concern over the effect of corporate concentration when he said, "I don't even
watch the news anymore to get my facts, because I know it's all BS and I know the way
that they portray things is like, to influence people, not to really educate people." While
most respondents felt that corporate concentration in the industry resulted in a more
conservative bias, Jose expressed the minority view and said, "The bulk of the media,
other than Fox News, is pretty much liberal one way or another."
Respondents generally agreed that mainstream media was biased: the majority
perceiving a conservative bias. However, when discussing the issue in regards to TDS,
opinions varied greatly. Overall, the issue of viewer's perception of bias in regards to
TDS were sectioned into four categories: TDS is biased to left, TDS is biased toward the
incumbent administration, TDS has a bias of humor, and identification influences bias
When asked to describe the show, some respondents considered TDS to have a
liberal bias. For example, Julie said that it was "liberal political news." However,
responses did indicate a range of perceived extremity. For example, Jose felt that the
show was extremely biased. "I would say that it's [TDS] more than liberal. I would say
it's far slanted to the left." Others felt that the bias was more tempered. As Rich said,
"it's slightly to the left."
Judgements also varied regarding the issue of bias. Some respondents, like
Ricardo, felt that the news media are more conservative, and that a liberal media show
helped to balance the broadcast lineup:
I think the left-wing bias, at least in television media is a myth. It's just not so.
And maybe even in print. I do think TDS has a slight left-wing bias and I
welcome that ... I'm glad there is a Daily Show to counter what I think is really
a right-wing bias in the mainstream media.
I think they try to remain really objective, and make fun of both sides, but there
are definitely days where they're scrapping for a token liberal joke, I guess, where
it seems like they're kind of starved for a way to make fun of somebody whose
Democratic. I know Jon Stewart has an agenda, and personally I would say that
he's left leaning, not that that's bad.
Some respondents voiced frustration about the fact that although they considered
TDS to have a liberal bias, they did not find that to be a negative quality, per se, but they
resented that the show tried to operate within the objective format. As Leanne said,
What I don't like about it is that it's almost like-I think it's pretty liberal, but
they'll do anything but say that they're liberal-as though it's wrong to take a
stance. It's not wrong to take a stance, but if you have a stance, you might as well
just take it, you might as well say, "You know we really don't like Bush, he's
stupid," but it's like everything but that.
Robert compared the phenomenon to reading the opinions page in a newspaper, and said
that like other news outlets TDS editorializes, which audiences should expect from any
Others, like Paul, considered the liberal bias of the show to be much more
When they invite McCain on, they say, "Ok, we'll invite both sides on, we'll
invite McCain on, he's a funny guy." And they'll talk about really commonplace
kind of stuff, and not let them get into their politics, and just keep it kind of
causal, and not let them have their platform, but other people, especially
[Michael] Moore, and other people not even as fanatical as Moore, they'll just let
them have their platform.
And Harry indicated that the liberal bias is so prevalent on the show that he is
uncomfortable watching it at times:
It's hard to watch a really staunch Republican go on there and have a completely
different viewpoint than Jon Stewart. It just seems like they clash the whole time
or Stewart manipulates, or not manipulates, but pushes them into a corner that he
can't seem to get out of and ends up sticking his foot in his mouth-and they
don't seem to really get along, but he seems to somehow smooth it over to make
sure it works.
Similarly, bias seemed evident against the incumbent administration to some
respondents. Some respondents commented that the incumbent President, and his
political party will be attacked more. Therefore, because this is an era of Republican
dominance, TDS is skewed more toward a liberal bias. As Leslie explained,
Well I think it has to do a lot with the times. Like right now if you watch TDS
it'd be easy to see that they're only making fun of Republicans because it's
Republicans in office and the people getting the attention.
Veronica offered a similar view:
I wish they were a little more balanced, but I think you have to look at the
perspective of who's running the country right now. I think if we were back
watching TDS back while Clinton was in office, I think they'd be bashing the left
just as much as they're bashing the Right right now, because that's who's there.
So you know, they see them, they see all their faults. I'm sure liberals have just
as many faults, but they're not in the spotlight right now. I think if John Kerry
gets elected, then they'll, you know, 1-2-3-4 bam, bam, bam, they'll be bashing
them as much as they can, because they can. But right now, nobody's there. You
know, so many people, so many people in the House of Representatives, Senators,
are mostly Republicans. But if it would switch, if they were mostly from a liberal
point of view it would be the same thing, but right now, and for the past three and
a half years it's all been Republicans, so that's who they're going to bash.
There was some opposition to this view however. Respondents commented that
the humor directed at the previous administration on TDS seemed to be less personal than
the jokes made about the current administration. For example, Ed countered Veronica,
and said, "To some extent I agree that it's the incumbent who gets all the heat, but I
remember it more against his policies and it's more like a mission this time around than
when Clinton was in office." And Greg voiced a similar opinion on the issue in a later
When Clinton was in office ... I don't remember him [Stewart] poking directly
so much, at like the President or the President's cabinet, or the people that work
with the President, so I don't know if it's the administration, or the slant on the
show, or it could be a combination of the two, because they are easy to poke at,
and it could be the fact that they are easier to poke fun at, but it does happen
This dimension also appeared in the data via comments regarding the potential
outcome of the then ongoing Presidential race. Many respondents wondered if the show
would maintain its level of satire if John Kerry were to win the election. Ricardo
speculated, "I think there is a danger that if John Kerry becomes President the show will
be less funny." And Fred commented that the Bush administration has been an easy
target for the show:
It depends on the material he's given to work with though, because it's been a
busy four years, politically. I mean, President Bush took us to war. We've been
desensitized, but that's still big news. So you know, President Bush, for good or
for bad, made a lot of very big, and a lot of very loud, and very controversial
decisions. So that's just, you know, gasoline on the fire, that Jon Stewart and all
the writers of TDS can stoke. You know, the success of his show, yea, it's
dependent on the skill, and the wit, and the cleverness of the writers, but it's also
dependent on what's happening.
Other members of the focus groups contradicted the prediction that the show
might not be as funny if President Bush were to lose the election. Also the general
opinion appeared to be that the comparison between the type of humor directed at Bush
and the type directed at Clinton was skewed because of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal
during Clinton's administration. As Veronica pointed out,
Clinton was so barraged ... I'm sure if Bush had a sex scandal right now, that's
all that would be all over the news. Nobody would be talking about the abortion
ban, nobody would be talking about gays getting married ... that's what would
then be the limelight at the time of Clinton's presidency, if something like that
were to happen now, it would be just the same.
In contrast to those who believed that TDS presents a leftist biased viewpoint, and
treats conservative guests and issues more harshly than their liberal counterparts, the
following statements reflect another viewpoint: that TDS is an equal-opportunity
offender, and that its only bias is to find the humor in the absurd. As Bert said, "I see it
more as an objective viewpoint because he bashes both sides equally." Sarah agreed and
said, "It's not just conservatives or Republicans. Everybody gets made fun of on that
show. Nothing is sacred."
Several respondents commented that the show's, and Stewart's, bias is toward
acts of "stupidity," rather than aimed at ideological targets. As Leanne said, "I think the