Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, made a name for himself covering the 2000 presidential election. “Indecision 2000,” fueled largely by George W. Bush's endless lampoonability, was a huge success that launched Stewart to the top of political journalism. Though he is still first and foremost a comedian, his role as a pundit and swayer of public opinion has no doubt expanded over the past 12 years. In 2010, he was voted the most influential man in America by an AskMen.com poll, even beating out President Obama.
But just how much influence does Jon Stewart have? If you look at the polling numbers, voter turnout in the 18-29 demographic has risen steadily since 2000, reaching it's highest levels since 1972. Stewart probably deserves at least a little credit here, because his ability to get young people more interested in politics is undeniable. Everyone is always harping on the short attention span of millennials, and whether or not that's fair, it's clear that we love sharing videos online. The Daily Show's quick and punchy topical segments easily make the transition to viral media, giving the show a much broader reach than its approximately 2 million weekly viewers.
With great power comes great responsibility, and many are quick to accuse Jon Stewart and The Daily Show of abusing their influential position. While Stewart clearly jabs at both major political parties, as well as everyone in between, critics would argue that there is a left-leaning bias to it all. The truth of the matter is that Stewart does indeed split his time pretty evenly between Democrats and Republicans. However, this time-share is really a ruse, because there is a subtle but clear difference between the ways liberals and conservatives are mocked on The Daily Show.
In general, prominent Democrats being made fun of are depicted as bumbling, stiff, or pandering, but always well intentioned. On the other hand, Republicans come off ostensibly more evil and less pitiable. While Stewart seems to make light of liberals, the commentary on conservative politicians is much more pointed. Barack Obama and Joe Biden are playfully roasted for their foibles, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have their policies and personal track records viciously satirized. Personally, I don't see partisanship as a negative as long as humor remains the focus. It's not Jon Stewart's fault that the wildly conservative Fox News is the most ripe for ridicule. That being said, I defy anyone to find a clip this harsh about a prominent liberal:
Despite this apparent bias, studies have shown that a major effect of The Daily Show is more negative opinions of candidates from either party. Members of one study who described themselves as regular Daily Show viewers displayed increased cynicism about the political process. Distrust might sound like a detriment to voter participation, but those same Daily Show viewers also had much higher “confidence in their ability to understand the complicated world of politics.” Surely such people would be more likely to vote, right? Whether or not Jon Stewart is doing more to create informed, politically active individuals, or simply reinforce disillusionment and non-participation is really on us, the young viewers and would-be voters.