Stewart & Colbert Nation?

A recent Pew Research Center poll suggests that conservatives are tightly clustered around a single news source, far more than any other group in the survey, with 47 percent citing Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics. However, liberal and left leaning individuals were spread out among the other basic and cable networks. The typical viewing practices of both sides is somewhat to be expected. Liberal minded individuals view Fox News as nothing more than biased right-wing propaganda while many on the other side of the spectrum don’t trust the majority of the major media outlets.

However, one of the more frightening realities the study provided is not that many individuals watch networks apart from Fox News but that many place their faith in a single hour of weeknight comedy shows on Comedy Central. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert are two of the most popular shows the comedy juggernaut has. While many individuals tune in to these shows to be entertained, a large portion of these individuals watch them also view the programs to be reliable sources of current events and commentary on today’s issues.

A 2009 Rasmussen poll showed that about one-third of Americans under the Age of 40 believe that shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are replacing “traditional” news outlets. Let that sink in: 32 percent of those polled ages 30-39 believe that The Daily Show and Colbert Report, two self-described and identified comedy shows, are replacing actual news. More frightening than that is the fact that the percentage of the younger demographic of adults aged 18-29 that agree with that sentiment is roughly the same (30 percent). The poll showed that nearly 39 percent of all adults believe that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and shows like them help Americans stay politically informed. Additionally, the study shows that almost 1/4th (21 percent) of adults in the country see these shows as “at least somewhat influential” in shaping their personal opinions regarding current events.

At first glance, the results from each poll are somewhat striking. However, a little analytic application shows that these numbers are not as dire as they first appear. While 30 percent of the 18-29 demographic believe these shows are slowly replacing traditional news outlets, 35 percent disagree while another 35 percent are not sure. More striking than that is how this disparity grows as the demographic increases in age. While 32 percent of adults aged 30-39 believe the sentiment to be true, 42 percent do not. These statistics appear to track with the fact that the audiences of more moderate and conservative shows like The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity are mainly made up by those ages 50 and over. So, while a decent amount of the younger demographic find these comedian news shows as more reputable, fewer of them will continue feel this way as they continue to age.

Although Jon Stewart has insisted that he is a “comedian first” and “not an activist”, he has also admitted to Fox News’ Chris Wallace that My comedy is informed by an ideological background, there’s no question about that.’ Little doubt can be had that these numbers make the ideologically informed comedian happy. It is naive to believe that the political message of his sketches and monologues are not a prominent part of their work. Stewart’s occasional extremely serious interviews with highly prominent politicians and figures would not occur if comedy was his only goal.

Regardless of whether or not he should be considered a trusted news source, the fact is that shows like his and Stephen Colbert’s are culturally relevant and play a part in modern news media. They have been able to not only attract a strong following of loyal viewers but have successfully influenced the political ideologies of many individuals. And while the numbers trend away from Stewart and company as the demographics get older, for better or for worse, today they have a large platform with which to guide modern political discourse.