One day last fall, an explosion of texts and tweets about police brutality began to appear on the Internet concerning an incident at the Occupy Cal protests on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley. Because most college students have camera phones, many captured on video footage of officers beating students, dragging a professor across the lawn by her hair and kneeling on the neck of a student being handcuffed. I saw the footage myself for the first time that night on “The Colbert Report,” where Stephen Colbert quoted from an Associated Press story that described the violence as “pulling people from the steps and nudging others with batons. ”
“Yes, ‘nudging,’” Colbert noted in his deadpan delivery as the footage rolled, “just like the Rodney King nudging. Or when Bull Connor set up that slip-’n’-slide in Birmingham.”
The studio audience howled and so did viewers, judging by the frequency with which Colbert was quoted afterward. Note that there’s a lot going on between the delivery and the viewer in moments like that. First, Colbert is presuming a fairly high level of cultural literacy on the part of his viewers (Bull Connor is not a household name anymore); second, the joke implies that both Colbert and his audience share a reflexive distrust of the way a venerable news organization like the Associated Press delivers content; and third, much of Colbert’s audience (including me) was getting their news from what is explicitly a comedy show.With Quips and Cynicism
“The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” (where Colbert got his start) has a similar modus operandi. It delivers news wrapped in comedy, pop-culture references and often an ironic distance from momentous historical events. When President Obama announced an impromptu televised press conference last May to deliver news that would capture world headlines (the death of Osama bin Laden), Jon Stewart quipped, “As Hollywood has taught us, when a black president interrupts your show, a meteor is headed for the earth.” There’s that combination again—humor, cynicism about the entertainment element of the news cycle and a pop-culture reference that the audience can take satisfaction in recognizing. (It has been 14 years, after all, since Morgan Freeman announced the earth’s impending destruction in “Deep Impact.”)
Despite a brief jump last year in viewers of the Big Three evening national news broadcasts, Nielsen Media Research has shown a steady decline in the audience for these television programs since 2001. Some of this is due to the growth of the Internet and the transformation of the news cycle into a 24/7 enterprise. Gone are the days when a company could issue bad news on a Friday afternoon and hope that by Monday someone else’s gaffes would occupy the attention of reporters. But much of the decline is also attributable to a sea change in the way Americans receive information and interact with public figures. Ask your friends and family where they get their news; if you’re talking to someone under a certain age, they will likely say Stewart or Colbert.Why Comedy?
But Stewart and Colbert are comedians, not news anchors. Colbert’s entire shtick originated as a mockery of Bill O’Reilly’s punditry from the right on “The O’Reilly Factor.” Why do jokesters bring many of us so much of our news? Are we shallower than our parents? Do we need sugar with our medicine? Are we more cynical than previous generations, refusing to accept information without ironic distance? The answer is complicated.
First, there has been an erosion of trust in “the news” as anything approaching the truth. This is a positive development in many ways. It is naïve to assume that Walter Cronkite could be trusted to deliver unvarnished truth, or that The New York Times delivers “all the news that’s fit to print.” We all have biases and blind spots and cut some intellectual corners. That has been apparent ever since a sitting president assembled an “enemies list” that put journalists among his nemeses. The media have their own agenda, and so does everyone they report on. So does the audience. If you watch the commercials between news segments on NBC, ABC or CBS (ads for medical care, defenses against crime and “how to protect your assets” are ubiquitous) you’ll see that the content follows certain motifs, like the fear of change. Mainstream news programs routinely report on the ways in which “our way of life” is being threatened or destroyed and seldom acknowledge that such ways of life are unsustainable or contrary to the public good. écrasez l’infâme to all that.
Second, we have seen a cultural shift in the relative importance of personality as it relates to content. This is as true of Colbert and Stewart as it is of O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Can you remember the particular personality characteristics of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings or Dan Rather?  Or do they blend together? Those anchors of the 1980s and ’90s were deliberately bland to reflect an Everyman persona. But with hams like Stewart and Colbert, much of their viewer appeal is tied up in their personality, regardless of the content. In fact, we’re usually waiting for the laugh more than for the news they riff on. The flip side of this focus on personality is delight in the failure of such persons to live up to the standards their cultic status places on them. One can see again Limbaugh’s public scandals here, or the endless speculation among Catholic media about Colbert’s background. (Is he a catechist? Does he have 11 children? Does he go to Mass every week? Does he really hate liturgical dance?) As much as we want the person to exemplify the content, we place a surprising amount of weight on that public personality’s private affairs.
Third, these shows have become news sources because of the ever-increasing compartmentalization of information in U.S. culture. The worldwide revolution in communications has put much more information at our fingertips, but it has not changed our ability to process it. We tend to compartmentalize where we receive our input, and we want it from people who look and act like us.
A dangerous result is that one is confirmed repeatedly in one’s narrow worldview without having to listen to opposing perspectives. Of course, opposing views were not regularly offered by the “mainstream news” either. A hegemonic information culture has been replaced by a completely fractious one, not necessarily to the good.
Why is it that Colbert and Stewart, the darlings of liberal sophisticates and urban hipsters, convey their product through comedy, while O’Reilly, Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck convey theirs through personas of perpetual outrage? It has to do with the ways in which we put each other down. The great weapon of the social conservative is to suggest that his or her ideological opponents have no values and no moral center. The great weapon of the social progressive is to suggest that his or her opponents are unsophisticated rubes, not in on the joke. The anger and professional outrage one hears from conservative pundits is paralleled by the mocking, ironic tone of comedians on the left. Both sides play to particular audiences. It really is just entertainment.
One last question: if the news is becoming entertainment, and entertainment is delivering the news, will the generations that get their news from such shows be able to process world events and social trends in nuanced and thoughtful ways? If our sources of information are filtered through the comic instincts of teams of writers with particular interests and biases, won’t we be increasingly polarized around political and social issues? The writer Joe Keohane presented evidence to support that view in an essay in The Boston Globe last year: when we Americans are confronted with information contrary to our strongly held views, we tend to become even more deeply convinced of what we already believed. Worse, Keohane found that the more “politically sophisticated” you think you are, the less likely you are to accept facts contrary to your worldview.
There is something troubling about a culture of information that relies on laughs at the foibles of ideological strangers. While these shows are not going away, it might be a valuable corrective to recover some sense of the comic axiom that the most fruitful target of humor is ourselves.