Laslo Boyd: Real News on ‘The Daily Show’

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By: Laslo Boyd 

There is certainly much to bemoan about the current state of the media in this country as well as the news consumption habits of Americans.   Daily newspapers are disappearing at an alarming rate. Many of the remaining ones are pale shadows of their former selves.  Local television news is incredibly thin and superficial in most markets. 

At the national level, the “Foxification” of news results more in entertainment and opinion-reinforcement than in information.  Even news sources that once were trusted, like 60 Minutes and CNN, have embarrassed themselves recently.  The Internet is a hodge-podge of unfiltered and unedited rumor, opinion, and occasional insight.

And if all of that weren’t disturbing enough, some media observed have noted disapprovingly that younger Americans are getting all their news from the “fake news” Comedy Central programs, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.  But is that really a bad thing?

Jon Stewart has pointed out repeatedly that anyone who relies entirely on his show doesn’t understand what he is making fun of.  Good point.  On the other hand, the “real” news programs could certainly learn some valuable lessons from Stewart.

For one, his show is the only one that regularly takes advantage of the fact that today everything ever said by a public person is available on tape.  Stewart frequently juxtaposes a current assertion by some politician with a significantly different position voiced by that person in the past.  His use of that technique is much better journalism that merely reporting what is said today without context.

Similarly, the mechanical standard of journalistic “fairness” is always to present two, and only two, sides to every controversy.  As many serious studies have pointed out, Republicans and Democrats are not equally at fault for the current gridlock in Washington.   Yet many news providers feel the need to provide an artificial balance by holding both parties equally responsible for the mess.  Stewart is under no such constraints.

An example from last week’s Daily Show provides an even more telling illustration of the real news value of that program.  Looking at a story that had gotten a lot of national attention, “reporter” Jason Jones managed to provide valuable perspective missed by other news outlets.

The story focused on Colorado State Senate President John Morse and his successful effort earlier this year to get three gun regulation bills through the legislature.  In response, pro-gun groups got the necessary signatures to place a recall question on the ballot in September and generated enough votes to get Morse removed from office.

The dominant narrative in most news coverage was that Morse had run afoul of the political power of the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby.  While you can argue that was part of the story, Jason Jones was able, in an apparently satirical segment, to demonstrate that there was more to the story.

Jones interviewed Morse and asked him what he had been thinking in going against the will of Colorado citizens who obviously are strong Second Amendment advocates.  In fact, however, polls showed that significant majorities of Colorado voters supported all three measures, to require background checks, to set up training programs for people who get gun licenses, and to limit magazines to 15 rounds.  No one’s guns were being taken away despite the predictably inflamed rhetoric of opponents.

Given popular support for the measures, why was the recall effort successful?  The answer, which is relevant to both the 2010 election results and the upcoming 2014 races, is that only 20% of eligible voters turned out.  People who were unhappy about the new gun regulations were apparently more motivated to vote than the substantial majority who approved of them.

Is the NRA really that powerful? Or is it just well organized?  The continued failure to get meaningful national gun regulations passed in the aftermath of New Town suggests that a strategy that focuses on mobilizing voters needs to be pursued.

Is the rest of the segment spoof or real?  Jones concluded, with the help of a political consultant, that angry voters are far more likely to turn out than people who are not angry.  He ended the piece by trying to provoke citizens on the streets of Denver into getting angry and was last seen being chased by a mob that certainly looked angry.

The larger take-away has great significance.  Republicans won an overwhelming number of state elections in 2010 because more of their supporters voted, apparently angry about Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 and about his “socialist” agenda.   Too many Democrats, still basking in the glow of Obama’s victory, didn’t bother to vote in 2010.  You can look at state after state where the falloff was as much as a million votes between the two elections.

What’s going to happen in 2014?  State and local elections matter every bit as much as national ones, but the party that won such a decisive victory in 2012 seems to forget that point in mid-term elections.   The political cost of that amnesia has been very high.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.