‘The greatest threat to America…’

By Denebola
Published: October 2008

By Rebecca Goldstein

Jon Stewart called one right-leaning commentator “a lying sack of s**t. His Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert asserts that bears are the greatest threat facing the United States, a reference to a 1984 campaign ad that most of his viewers don’t remember. And The New York Times called Tina Fey’s parodies of GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin “devastating.

Though The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Saturday Night Live are not reputable news sources, they are affecting the public discourse and the 2008 presidential election, playing a role that alternative news sources have never played before.

The closest historical comparison is probably Bill Clinton’s 1992 appearance on the then-popular Arsenio Hall Show, when he played Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel on the saxophone in a game-changing moment that garnered him votes in the coveted 18 to 24-year-old demographic. But even that appearance does not come close to the influence that today’s alternative media are having.

During the two weeks of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, The Daily Show was the second-most-watched program on television among 18-24 year-old men in the 11 p.m. time slot, with 1.7 million total viewers – a ratings increase of 37 percent from the 2004 conventions, according to Nielsen Media Research.

And it’s not just the entertainment that viewers are tuning in for. A January 2007 study from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that 13 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds watch The Daily Show regularly as an information source. Contrast that with 10 percent viewership of the ABC, NBC, and CBS evening news combined among 18-24′s, according to Nielsen.

Republican commentator Bill O’Reilly, whom Colbert draws on for comedic inspiration, once called the viewership of The Daily Show “stoned slackers. But a May 2008 report from the Pew Research Center calls Daily Show and Colbert Report viewers “highly informed, noting that “regular viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were most likely to score in the highest percentile on knowledge of current affairs compared with viewers of other news programs.

The internet only serves to amplify the influence that these programs have. With clips available online, viewers don’t have to watch the show live to see the funniest moments. The most-viewed clip in the history of the Comedy Central website is a five minute segment of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show monologue from September 3, 2008, “The Sarah Palin Gender Card. The clip showcases contradictory statements on the part of former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, GOP commentators Dick Morris (the “lying sack of s**t) and Bill O’Reilly, and McCain staffer Nancy Pfotenhauer. It received 1.5 million hits on the first day it was posted.

The availability of internet video has certainly helped Saturday Night Live, as Tina Fey’s spot-on impressions of Sarah Palin have gone viral on YouTube and the NBC website. Internet viewers have helped push the show’s Nielsen ratings up 76 percent from this time last year, with 17 million people tuning in for the first half-hour of the show on October 18.

It’s possible that the parodies have hurt Sarah Palin in the polls, as a Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion survey indicated decreased candidate favorability after viewing the clips. More likely, however, is that Palin’s gaffes are much more damaging than the imitations thereof.

The new breed of satire shows is informing young voters this election cycle more than it ever has, and liberal leanings on all three shows might lead to a slightly bluer 18-24 vote this election. But young voters are always more likely to vote Democratic and Barack Obama has been able to turn out 18-24s more effectively than any candidate in history.

It’s unlikely that election results will be swayed significantly by these shows. What is clear is that political satire is combining with the internet and the increasingly tech-savvy members of “Next-Gen to create politically aware and informed youth.

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