Ever since The Daily Show reached its current levels of viewership and planted its flag as a pop culture force and, strange as it may seem, an arbiter of American political culture, there's been a silly, semi-annual debate about the precise Meaning of All This. It goes like this: "Since many twentysomethings watch The Daily Show, and many name it or other comedy shows as a primary news source, are we doomed as a nation?"
The stock answer from the journalism establishment is always, tut tut - yes. Or, if you're not watching Brian Williams and reading The New York Times - the "roughage" as opposed to the Jon Stewart's "dessert," you're ignorant.
Writing on CBS's Public Eye blog, Matthew Felling makes precisely that argument, citing a Pew poll that found that that young people who cite "comedy shows" as their number one news source were less aware of basic campaign-related facts than other people, and a Gail Shister story on the same issue.
But isn't this is a misreading, both of the rapidly changing media environment and Generation Next? (Or whatever you want to call it - I've never been a fan of naming generations, partly because I belong to a nameless generation, post-baby boom, pre-GenX - i.e., too young for Vietnam and the 60s, then too old for angsty-post boomer culture, now for FaceBook. But we do have Barack Obama.)
The first misreading is that The Daily Show (and its spinoff, The Colbert Report) are purely "comedy shows." They are, indeed, comedy shows: their principal goal is to be funny. But that's not a very good distillation of what they do; the phrase itself, especially in the context of a discussion of media and politics, sounds vaguely musty, like we're talking about Sid Caesar. (Saturday Night Live is, indeed, more in the Caesar tradition.)
What the DS and CR are doing is skewering the various lies and hypocrisies, large and small, of our political and media establishments. It's both silly and incisive. As such, these shows require some sophistication to "get." (Colbert, in particular, has reached a trippy level of meta-supra-self-referentiality that requires an advanced degree in - philosophy? set theory? - to understand fully.) Do they impart a lot of hard information? No. But they do impart something else - a little analytical distance from all the bullshit we're constantly bombarded with.
Is that more important than, to cite the CBS example, knowing who Wesley Clark is? Well, you do need to know who the candidates are in order to vote. But it's not an either-or question. We're talking about different things, facts and insights. Both are needed to shape a view of politics.
The second misreading is in the nature of "news." The way news and information are transmitted is changing -- and so is the way we absorb them. News used to come in big chunks at the beginning and end of the day from one or two sources. Now it comes to us in bits and pieces, through the course of the day, from hundreds or thousands of sources, some reliable, some not so reliable. Video and audio and text are mixed; so are facts and opinions. I don't think there is enough awareness among the various outposts of the MSM about just how much credibility they have lost amid this din - especially on the very political issues that The Daily Show and Colbert are so acute on. They are also adrift in a world of new technology, uncertain how to make money or even to perform their most basic function - reaching an audience. It's silly to bemoan the lack of youthful interest in these news sources when the news sources are wheezing and limping their way into the 21st century, unwilling or unable to embrace the changes already underway.