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Eric Burns

Eric Burns

Posted: September 29, 2008 11:09 AM

Sorry, Jon, You Are A News Show


The question has been asked for years, and it is time now, once and for all, to answer it. Is The Daily Show really a news program, like, say, the CBS Evening News?

The answer, of course, is yes. And no. But much closer to the former than some people might think.

Example: A few months ago, Katie Couric said words to this effect, and I paraphrase loosely: Republican presidential candidate John McCain has changed his position on offshore oil-drilling. Once opposed to it, he now seems more favorably disposed, telling an audience in Texas that the states should decide the matter for themselves.

On The Daily Show more recently, Jon Stewart said words to this effect, another paraphrase: Some people are opposed to offshore oil-drilling.

Then he cut to a sound bite from the summer in which McCain announced his opposition.

Cut back to Stewart: Then again, some people are in favor of offshore drilling.

Cut to a more recent sound bite from McCain declaring that it's not such a bad idea after all.

The editorial content of the CBS Evening News---and the ABC and NBC evening newscasts---was precisely the same as that of The Daily Show. Only the style of presentation was different. As was the effect on the audience. By presenting its report with humor, The Daily Show related McCain's change of attitude in a more forceful manner than did the other broadcasts. Jokes always make a more enduring impression than straight lines.

Related question: Is The Daily Show really a news analysis program, like, say, Campbell Brown's CNN offering? Yes. And no. But still closer to yes.

In the aftermath of Sean Hannity's interview with Sarah Palin, in which Hannity was operating at a disadvantage because he forgot his shoeshine kit and could not, therefore, polish the governor's footwear between questions, TV commentators offered their opinions of the conversation. Most were negative. Most thought Hannity's behavior was biased in Palin's favor. Most thought her shoes could have used a bit more sheen.

The Daily Show thought so, too. But it illustrated its opinion with sound bites from the interview in which Hannity's questions about the economy often began with Barack Obama's name. Obama thinks this, Hannity said. Obama thinks that. Do you think Obama can possibly have any grasp of the situation?

In other words, The Daily Show demonstrated that Hannity was setting up Palin to make political charges, not discuss economic policy. Hannity was not tossing softballs; he was, rather, conspiring to camouflage the governor's ignorance of the topic and therefore promoting a political position.

Once again, The Daily Show's editorial content---or, in this case, its analytical viewpoint---was the same as that of most other journalistic outlets that discussed the subject.

In truth, The Daily Show has more in common with Jim Lehrer's Newhour on PBS that it does with such other Comedy Central presentations as South Park. The latter often dwells on Cartman's evil scheming, and the effects it has on his fellow third graders and others.

On the other hand, The Daily Show last week presented a two-part interview with former British prime minister Tony Blair. Also featured was former president Bill Clinton on the Clinton Global Initiative. In both cases, the guests were given longer periods of time to present their views than they would have been given on most conventional newscasts.

Yes, Jon Stewart has a point of view. Yes, that point of view is liberal. And yes, of course, he has a sense of humor.

But also yes, with apologies to Stewart, who often insists otherwise, The Daily Show is a news show. Itis a news analysis show. The laughter it elicits does not dilute its subject matter; it makes the subject matter more memorable and barbed.