In class last week, we discussed an article titled “The Good, The Bad, and The Daily Show” by Jason Zinser, an academic at Florida SU. As the title implies, Zinser sees The Daily Show as a hybrid form of entertainment that is both beneficial and damaging to society. Beneficial in that the show sparks viewer interest in current events, particularly among younger viewers who might not necessarily invest their time watching so-called real news. Damaging in that the show relies on “deception and dilution” for its platform.
But does Zinser have grounds for his major complaints? To complain that the show relies on deception and dilution is like going to a steak house and complaining when they serve you steak. Dilution, distortion, paradox, cloaking, irony, exaggeration–these are the conventions of satire and comedy. To object that The Daily Show uses these conventions is to misunderstand or to deny the comic genre. The Daily Show doesn’t pretend to be anything but ironic and satiric. Comedy relies on conventions for effect; viewers realize this and don’t expect to get a “straight scoop” from a show produced by something called Comedy Central. (Hint: The word “comedy” is a tip off.) Zinser finds it problematic that the show both informs and yet remains “unburdened by objectivity” (365). Since when is satire supposed to be synonymous with objective reportage? And why does he call it hypocritical that such a satiric show doesn’t offer any solutions to the problems with the media? Again, is that the function of satire? One could argue that the show intrinsically does offer a real alternative: tell the news media to do their jobs!
I also think it’s a misnomer calling the show “fake” news. The Daily Show is not news and does not pretend to be a straight news show, but it is a satiric commentary on the news,and it does use real news stories for its material. Zinser conflates the material (news stories) with the purpose (commentary). Do we really think that legions of impressionable young adults tune into Comedy Central to get caught up on foreign and domestic affairs? That’s an urban myth. Not only does the Annenberg study suggests that viewers of The Daily Show are well informed on current events, the show would not work without a knowledgeable audience. Viewers would not “get” the humor if they did not know the story in the first place. There’s nothing fake about The Daily Show. What is fake is a thinly cloaked propaganda machine posing as “fair and balanced” news.
Zinser also questions the value of blending entertainment and information. But isn’t that one of the main criticisms inherent in The Daily News and The Colbert Report? Fox News, ABC, NBC, and other networks routinely blend entertainment with information–not to mention political bias–and yet they are packaged as being real “news” outlets. The Daily Show plays the important role of calling out the deception and dilution of televised news. Viewers understand its function, and Comedy Central understands the role satire plays in a free democratic society. Viva la revolution!