Is This The Most Influential Man in America?

Last year, The Pew Research Center asked Americans to name the journalist they most admired. Comedian, Jon Stewart tied in the rankings with anchormen Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and (the oh-so-dreamy) Anderson Cooper. 

Because of this, Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism studied the content of The Daily Show throughout all of 2007. They compared the Comedy Central staple’s news agenda with that of the more traditional news media and examined the lineup of guests and segments in an attempt to place the show into some kind of media context.

So, how did The Daily Show stack up against “real news”?

Among the study’s findings:

  • The program’s clearest focus is politics, especially in Washington. U.S. foreign affairs, largely dominated by the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq, Washington politics and government accounted for nearly half (47%) of the time spent on the program. Overall, The Daily Show news agenda is quite close to those of cable news talk shows.
  • The press itself is another significant focus on The Daily Show. In all, 8% of the time was made up of segments about the press and news media. That is more than double the amount of coverage of media in the mainstream press overall during the same period.
  • A good deal of the news, however, is also absent from The Daily Show. In 2007, for example, major events such as the tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse were never discussed. And the shootings at Virginia Tech, the most covered story within a given week in 2007 by the overall press, received only a cursory mention.
  • However, while Fox, MSNBC and CNN routinely cover sensational stories like sexual predators and dead celebrities, The Daily Show tracks the bigger and often more depressing issues like the Iraq war, shifts in executive power, and the politicization of the Department of Justice.
  • Republicans in 2007 tended to bear the brunt of ridicule from Stewart and his crew. From July 1 through November 1, Stewart’s humor targeted Republicans more than three times as often as Democrats. The Bush Administration alone was the focus of almost a quarter (22%) of the segments in this time period.
  • The lineup of on-air guests was more evenly balanced by political party. But our subjective sense from viewing the segments is that Republicans faced harsher criticism during the interviews with Stewart. Whether this is because the show is simply liberal or because the Republicans control the White House is harder to pin down.

One thing the report mentions is that while Jon Stewart himself insists The Daily Show is not journalism, it does “get people to think critically about the public square” which has always been a key function of journalism. And, in my view, this is critical to the shows’ influence. In this era of soundbites, it’s nice to have someone remind us to deconstruct the messages and really consider the total context.

For a look at how Jon and his teams come up with their comedic bits and their view on the show’s increasing political influence, check out this New York Times article.

A few more stats per the Pew Center:

  • 16% of Americans said they regularly watched The Daily Show or the Colbert Report. Those numbers are comparable to some major news programs. For instance, 17% said they regularly watched Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, and 14% watched PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer regularly.
  • The study also suggests Daily Show viewers are highly informed, an indication that The Daily Show is not their lone source of news. Regular viewers of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report were most likely to score in the highest percentile on knowledge of current affairs.
  • The Daily Show, which began in 1996, now has an average audience of about 1.8 million. By comparison, Fox News’ primetime show Hannity & Colmes had an average audience of 1.9 million in the first quarter of 2008, and CNN’s highest rated show, Election Center captured an average of 1.2 million viewers.

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