an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 2, April 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




The Daily Show: The Face of American News in 2005



Steve Gennaro




It was a typical Saturday evening broadcast from the NBC television studios in New York City.  The year was 1975, and unbeknownst to the television viewer, a news anchor had just uttered the words that would change American news forever, “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.”  What began as a three minute segment on Saturday Night Live, the “Weekend Update” skit quickly became Saturday Night Live’s most popular skit and occupied nine minutes of airtime before the first season was over.  Chevy Chase “took the stage when the press and public alike were anxious for a new diversion, not unlike the Beatles when they landed in New York soon after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.  America after Watergate was ready to proclaim a new clown prince, someone whose very freshness and confidence was a relief and renewal.  In 1975, Chevy Chase was it. ”[1] America had fallen in love with comedy-news.  


The Daily Show debuted on the American cable channel Comedy Central in July of 1996.  Originally, Craig Kilborn was the show’s host, but he was replaced by current host Jon Stewart on January 11, 1999.  Since Stewart took over as the host, the viewing audience of the show has more than tripled to a peak of over a million viewers a night in 2004.[2]  The Daily Show has become the most trusted source for political news on television.  Since the beginning of 2004, Jon Stewart and his cast of reporters have taken hold of the mainstream media.  In the lead up to the 2004 Presidential election Jon Stewart’s face could be seen everywhere.  He was a guest on every imaginable news program from The O’Reilly Report to Crossfire as every newsroom asked for his opinion on the upcoming election.  Jon Stewart’s book, America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy in Action, has spent months atop the New York Times Best Sellers List.  In 2004, America loves comedy-news more than ever.


This paper examines the rise of The Daily Show’s audience over the last five years.   Television critics argue that it is Stewart’s easy going personality that has endeared him to comedy-news viewers, however, it would be imprudent to ignore the changes in The Daily Show’s program content (that is the shift from comedy-news to news) and the changes in the surrounding society (most notably America’s involvement in Iraq) that have played a part in the rise of The Daily Show audience.  Just like with Chevy Chase’s rise to stardom in 1975, Jon Stewart’s rise to prominence and with him the success of The Daily Show has largely been in response to America’s need for a new clown prince who can provide relief and renewal to its involvement in Iraq. 


Furthermore, examining the growth of The Daily Show audience also involves examining the shift in program content on The Daily Show as witnessed through its transition from comedy-news to real-news. This transition works much like a two way street; The Daily Show, traditionally only of comedic value, is used as a source of news, while traditional hard news is becoming entertainment. In one direction, we see an increase of the political prestige of the guests on The Daily Show over the last two years, thus making The Daily Show more authentic in its news-character.  In the other direction we see the transition in news as a television genre to what James Compton would call a “Debordian spectacle,” or what Neil Postman would say is responsible for our “amusing ourselves to death.”  The merger between entertainment and news on the major news stations further highlights that the difference between hard news and The Daily Show is decreasing.


This paper seeks to highlight how The Daily Show is trying to straddle both sides of the fence; it wants to be fake news so that it can openly criticize the American political infrastructure, and yet it wants to be real news so that it’s critiques have credibility.  The paper will be divided into two sections.  The first half of the paper will examine comedy, news, and their interconnectedness.  The point is that the situation in Iraq has left the American audience searching for a different way to interact with news media.  Being that humour, namely satire and irony, have always been ways in which the American people have made sense of their government’s politics, comedy-news and thus, The Daily Show are the logical outlet for current American anxieties.  The second half of the paper will examine how news as a genre continues to shift away from journalism towards entertainment and spectacle.  As Americans tune in more and more to comedy-news, and news as a whole moves towards a form of entertainment, perhaps The Daily Show and its split personality (of being both real and fake news) will be the face of news as a whole in 2005. 


Comedy has always played an important role in the ways that a community identifies itself and the types of stories that it tells.  “Tragedy, at least since the classical times has dealt with our highest desires, but comedy has been our way of dealing with life as it happens.  The kind of comedy that we choose and enjoy tells us a great deal about the kinds of people we are.”[3]  For the United States over the course of the twentieth century, political humour in particular has been instrumental in defining the public’s attitude towards the President. For example, the first half of the twentieth century, or the pre-television era, was marked by a political humour where the comedian acted as a mediator between the public and the President.  The comedian would speak about the President by highlighting his humane qualities and making the President accessible to the common person.  However, the comedian, while speaking of the non political aspects of the president’s life would comment on anything but the political.  A great example of this type of comedian is Bob Hope, always in the spotlight with regard to political events, but never speaking about politics.


In contrast, the last half of the twentieth century saw the attitude of comedians (and thus humour) towards the President change, where humour became an avenue through which to openly question or attack the policies of the President in power.  A politically charged attitude questioned the policies on key issues such as race, gender, and war.  Comedians such as Lenny Bruce or Richard Prior used this type of political satire for social commentary.  Giving further credence to the changes taking place were the technological changes; there was a drastic increase in the amount of televisions in American society. In 1950, only 9 percent of all homes in America contained at least one television and by 1966 that number had risen to 92.8 percent.  In comparison, in 1966 only 80 percent of all American households had at least one telephone.[4]  “The tissue between politics and popular culture had evaporated…Television has enforced this connection, making all politicians media-conscious.  That is both good and bad.  It is good in that the governor or president must never forget that they serve a democracy.”[5]


This shift in the uses of political humour throughout the twentieth century has laid the groundwork for what is the current environment, where the lines between humour and news have become blurred.  “An important paradox to emerge from this is that, in a political environment frequently styled as ‘postmodern’, the comedian, now widely acknowledged, in the age of impression management, as truth-teller and iconoclast, may carry more public credibility than the politician.”[6]  This is perhaps the case with George W. Bush, Jon Stewart, and the American public. 


In examining humour in politics, “the most common weapon, however, is ridicule.  The authority figure is exposed for what he really is behind his public mask, and his hypocrisy or social inadequacy is held up for all to see and to laugh at.  Here is where humor normally plays it’s most important role in the comedy, as a social corrective.”[7]  The Daily Show asks audiences not only to consume the news, but to critically think about it.  Not only to hear the report on troops in Fallujah, but to think about whether these actions are justified.  Humour does not allow us just to ingest the messages; it forces us to digest them as well.  Humour invites the viewer to react, by laughing.  The decision to laugh, although in many ways a spontaneous physical reaction, first and foremost requires the viewer to process the comment made by the actor, comedian, news anchor, and either agree or disagree.  Without this “critical” moment of reflection, a persons’ reaction to humour would not be laughter, but instead an “I don’t get it” response. 


The use of humour and political satire has been effective in The Daily Show’s ability to attract an audience interested in political issues.  The level of engagement of The Daily Show audience is staggering.  A recent poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Centre at the University of Pennsylvania highlighted that viewers of The Daily Show were better informed than conventional news viewers on the key political issues leading up to the 2004 American federal election.  While the survey highlighted that the viewers of all late-night television talk shows were better informed on the 2004 Presidential candidates and their platforms than those who relied solely on conventional forms of televised news, viewers of The Daily Show scored best; outperforming viewers of late night greats David Letterman and Jay Leno.[8]  The Daily Show audience also scored greater than those who regularly read newspapers or watched television news, leading Rolling Stone Magazine in October 2004 to conclude that “Stewart can now cite objective data to prove that he, like Walter Cronkite before him, deserves to be known as the most trusted name in TV news.[9]


The Daily Show is becoming more credible than traditional news sources as evidenced by the decision of political candidates to use The Daily Show as a forum to gain access to voters instead of traditional news sources. The Democratic Party invited The Daily Show to cover its 2004 National Convention, which sparked MSNBC to comment that Stewart’s “starting to be taken seriously as a political force. The Democratic National Committee announced this month that it plans to invite Stewart & Co. to cover its convention, amazing since "The Daily Show" is actually a fake news program.”[10] Ten months later, Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry chose to grant an interview to Jon Stewart and appeared on The Daily Show. An ensuing article on stated:


 It's ironic that a comedian whose livelihood comes from what he calls his "fake news" forum on Comedy Central is staking his ground on serious journalism. On Stewart's watch, "The Daily Show" has taken political satire to a new level, so much so that the satirical descendant of David Frost's "That Was the Week That Was" has the power to make news, as it did when presidential candidate John Kerry agreed to be interviewed by an anchor who undoubtedly has more sway with the average 18- to 34-year-old than Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather combined.[11] 


According to The Pew Research Center for the People and Press, 21 percent of viewers aged 18-29 learnt most of their 2004 presidential campaign news primarily from The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. The Daily Show was the top rated news show for 18-34 year olds and only Fox News Channel had more viewers aged 18-49.[12]


The increase in The Daily Show credibility is in large part due to the increase to its audience size and demographic.  Although Bill O'Reilly of Fox’s highly rated talk show The O'Reilly Factor accused The Daily Show’s audience of being a bunch of "stoned slackers" the statistics do not support this perspective.  Viewers of The Daily Show are 78 percent more likely than the average adult to have four or more years of college education and 26 percent more likely to have a household income over $100,000.  The viewers of The O’Reilly Factor did not rate so well.  In contrast to The Daily Show, viewers of The O’Reilly Factor were only 24 percent more likely than the average adult to have four or more years of college education and only 11 percent more likely to have a household income over $100,000.  According to CNN, “the guy watching Stewart may not only be smart, but may also be rich.”[13]  The median age of "The Daily Show" audience is 33 years old.  The audience of The Daily Show is educated, interested, and continually growing in market share as people become more and more disenchanted with traditional forms of news.


It is no coincidence that the most recent jump in ratings of The Daily Show parallels America’s involvement in Iraq.  This suggests that Americans are looking for an alternate source of news when it comes to dealing with difficult subjects as opposed to being exposed to only the CNN or Fox news perspective that seems to suspiciously support the political agendas of those in power.  Stewart himself says, “I enjoy watching Fox News and I think every country should have their own Al-Jazeera.”[14]  Perhaps the popularity of humour in news is partly due to the ways in which the messages of news are conveyed through the medium of television.  For example, “television has revolutionized politics not because of the quantity and speed of its information, not because of its practitioners’ technological savvy, and not even because of its legion of superficialities…television makes us feel good about feeling bad about politics.”[15]  The Daily Show’s critique of the Bush Administration allows Americans to feel good about a bad situation in Iraq. “His cut-the-crap humor hits the target so consistently—you've gotta love a show that calls its segments on Iraq “Mess O'Potamia.”[16]


The idea of “comedy-news” is itself a misnomer in that all forms of television content, whether news, comedy, or sports, are focused on entertainment value.  Therefore, differentiating between real and fake, comedy and broadcast, or hard and soft types of news only creates false dichotomies.   All television news has moved away from reporting journalism to entertainment, spectacle, and selling. Neil Postman discussed this movement towards entertainment, not exclusive to news,  twenty years ago when he stated, “[o]ur politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice, the result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”[17] 


A large part of this movement from news to entertainment is due to the phenomenon of convergence.  The term convergence refers to a remediation of technologies and also to, “the merging of corporations into ever larger entities and alliances, and the convergence of messages and cultures.”[18]  Elvis Presley is a great example of early forms media convergence, in that Elvis used his television appearances to sell his music, and his music to sell his movies, and his movies to sell his brand name products.  The new media conglomerates of the second half of the twentieth century work in a similar fashion, so that, when a person watches a television show on one particular cable channel, they are at the same time being sold products owned by other companies within that cable channels “im-media-te” family.  For example:


AOL-Time Warner, for instance, owns a whole stable of valuable magazine properties-Time, People, Sports Illustrates, fortune, Life, entertainment Weekly, In Style and many more.  While these magazines are each expected to turn a profit, they are also promotional vehicles used to pump and spin other AOL-Time Warner media products…Warner Brothers Studios which produces blockbuster films…cable holdings such as CNN, Cinemax, HBO…music labels such as Atlantic and Elecktra…Warner Books…America On-line…sport franchises that include the Atlanta Braves in baseball, the NHL’s Atlanta thrashers and the Atlanta Hawks in basketball…not to mention stadiums and theme parks…in these circumstances, it’s often difficult to know where journalism leaves off and self-promotion begins.[19]


At the turn of the millennium, the power of the culture industries lay in the hands of five multi-national media companies: Disney, News Corp, Viacom, Vivendi Universal, and AOL Time Warner.   


More recently than Postmans’ discussion on “amusing ourselves to death”, James Compton in 2004 examined the effects of the phenomenon of convergence on the news room “The question “Will it entertain?’ has replaced ‘Will it inform?’ and journalism’s high calling of public service has been eroded, leaving the media to settle in to the muck of low-brow popular culture, the narcissism of celebrity profiles, and the pornography of violence.  What happened?”[20]  Compton answers his own question; media convergence and integrated newsrooms happened.


What is significant about integrated newsrooms is that the dividing line between editorial and promotional interests has been blurred irrevocably.  In the past, news media sold mass audiences to advertisers who were given the opportunity to place their advertisements in front of the delivered eyeballs…[i]n integrated news rooms, however, the goal is to use editorial content to steer audiences toward preferred nodes on a company’s or group of companies proprietary network of multi media outlets.[21]


In much the same way that Fox News gives the viewer “the soft sell” on other Fox products, The Daily Show also participates in the media spin of selling its own.  For example, when returning from each and every commercial break an announcer reminds viewers to buy the new book by Jon Stewart and The Daily Show titled America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy in Action.  Also, it is not a coincidence that The Daily Show hit its media peak, with Jon Stewart’s face on each and every magazine, newspaper, and television station, at the exact same time that the new book was released. The integrated news spectacle is just one way in which The Daily Show has crept towards the world of real news. 


The argument could also be made that The Daily Show has continually worked to increase its news-like credibility.  At the same time as news agencies are moving more towards entertainment than journalism, The Daily Show appears to be moving in the other direction: from entertainment to journalism.  The Daily Show has noticeably altered the political status of its guests.  Since Jon Stewart took over as host, guests have included Vice President Al Gore, former Secretary of State Henry Kissenger, and notable Senators such John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, John Kerry, and Bob Dole to mention a few.    The Daily Show has also gained public prestige by winning five Emmys over the last two years.  In 2004, The Daily Show was awarded the Television Critics Association  award for best news and information program.  The Daily Show has become the trusted source of news for young people when it comes to political issues.  According to the Nielsen ratings, during the 2004 party convention, The Daily Show drew higher ratings in the 11:00 pm to 11:30 pm time slot with the 18-34 demographic than any of the cable news channels, including CNN and Fox.[22]


The Daily Show occupies a privileged position in the news world.  At the same time as The Daily Show sells itself as news, it is quick to state its lack of connection to professional news.  During his appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, Jon Stewart told co-host Tucker Carlson “You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.”[23]  In the media Jon Stewart continually aims to down play his shows significance by noting that the shows, which precede his timeslot on the Comedy channel are shows such as Puppets That Kill, or Southpark and therefore his show should not be taken seriously.  However, even as he discredits his shows legitimacy as news, he cries out for journalistic credibility.  Take for example The Daily Show’s coverage of “Mess O’Potamia”:


But we are at war, and we here at The Daily Show will do our best to keep you informed of any late-breaking...humor we can find. Of course, our show is obviously at a disadvantage compared to the many news sources that we're competing with… at a disadvantage in several respects. For one thing, we are fake. They are not. So in terms of credibility we are, well, oddly enough, actually about even. We're about even.



Stewart’s reasoning for denial of the newsworthiness of his show is an attempt to deflect responsibility away from his program to allow the show to maintain its persona as comedy-news and talk show, which in the past has left its writers empowered to say what other network news broadcasts don’t, or cant, and which has been its raison d’etre and source of popularity.  And yet, like real news, Stewart begs his viewers to “stay tuned for the latest updates” and even tries to validate his own credibility as a news service by discrediting the other news agencies.  The fact that The Daily Show calls itself fake news but is perceived by the audience as being real, allows it to say things that other news programs could not get away with under the guise of humour and still have real impact.


Not everyone is happy about The Daily Show’s change in program content.  Many fans feel that the program, which began as a harsh critique of the media and its coverage of American politics, has itself, by aiming to affect the voter turnout and impression in the 2004 Presidential election, altered its own political humour and coverage.  When asked if his show was equally as critical of the Democrats as the Republicans during the lead up to the election, Jon Stewart told an interviewer at CBS, "We don't consider ourselves equal opportunity anythings, because that's not - you know, that's the beauty of fake journalism. We don't have to - we travel in fake ethics." [24] However, the defense of being fake journalists has left many fans unhappy and unimpressed.  A posting on a fan site perhaps best illustrates this: “somehow, over the years, The Daily Show slowly transformed into an actual news show, gradually transforming itself bit-by-bit into the very thing it reviled.”[25]  Much as the audience is sometimes confused as Stewart straddles the barrier between real and fake news, so too is Stewart sometimes confused.  While a guest on CNN’s Crossfire, co-host Tucker Carlson accused Stewart of being more fun on The Daily Show than during his appearance on Crossfire, suggesting that Stewart was taking himself (and his opinions) too seriously.  Stewart took offence to the idea that his own comments about journalism were not appreciated and told Carlson “You know what's interesting, though? You're as big a dick on your show as you are on any show. [26]  At the same time as he uses fake news as his defence, Jon Stewart still wants to have the credibility of a real news anchor. 


Another way that The Daily Show looks to associate itself with the credibility of mainstream news is through the actors it uses to play the roles of its reporters, correspondents and analysts: Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms and Rob Corddry.  If, as Graeme Burton tells us, “news as genre becomes the same stories told in the same ways to reinforce the same meanings about social power and social relations,” then The Daily Show as a news program is not excluded from this group.[27]  Even though its correspondents may ask the most ludicrous questions, the discourse on the show is still telling the same stories, which reinforce the same social meanings.  The shows humour comes from its play on existing relationships of power in society.  Take as an example an interview conducted by Samantha Bee with a delegate from Montana at the 2004 Republican Convention in New York:

Samantha Bee: Have you had your picture take with a black person yet?
Delegate: I haven't, but I wouldn't mind doing that.
Bee: That's something you'd be willing to try?
Delegate: Why, certainly.
Bee: There's plenty of them [in New York]. Do you have any in Montana?
Delegate: We don't. In fact, I guess our kids were pretty old before they saw one.


The humour in this skit comes from the preconceived ideas that the viewer has about: the Republican Party’s ideas on black people, the images of country red-necks associated with states like Montana, and the ridiculous attempt of people to appear politically correct during election campaigns.  At the same time as the humour attacks the hegemony of American society that it mimics, it also reinforces it, by acknowledging its existence and using it to garner a laugh.  On one level, by performing political satire, The Daily Show reinforces the political structure that it criticizes.  For example, when The Daily Show represents George W. Buish as an idiot for one reason or another, it reinforces that he is in fact the chosen leader of the free world and thus gives him power at the same time that it seeks to discredit him.  On a semiotic level, by taking a political event out of its original context and using it as a sound bite to elicit laughter The Daily Show is in fact participating in the same practices of media manipulation the show pretends to be criticizing. 


In his interview on PBS’s Now with Bill Moyers, Moyers questioned the journalistic practices of The Daily Show by stating: “I do not know whether you are practicing an old form of parody and satire…or a new form of journalism.”[28]  Stewart’s response said it all. “Well then, that either speaks to the sad state of comedy or the sad state of news. I can't figure out which one. I think, honestly, we're practicing a new form of desperation.” [29] This new form of desperation is the new face of news in 2005, so that whether it is Fox News or CNN, the focus of television news is what is entertaining and not what is news.  At the same time, this new desperation is all about the spectacle, and even more so an integrated news spectacle, so that selling is also a driving force.  Whether your view of Jon Stewart’s program sees his show as critical of the current state or as the leader of it, either way, The Daily Show is the face of news in 2005, or as Moyers said in the prelude to his interview with Jon Stewart “when future historians come to write the political story of our times, they will first have to review hundreds of hours of a cable television program called The Daily Show. You simply can't understand American politics in the new millennium without The Daily Show.”[30]



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 2, April 2005, ISSN 1552-5112






[1] Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad.  Saturday night : a backstage history of Saturday night Live (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1986), 213.

[2] John Colapinto “The Most Trusted Name in News: How Jon Stewart and The Daily Show made ‘fake news’ a hit Rolling Stone, September 2004.

[3] David Grote. The end of comedy: the sit-com and the comedic tradition. (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1983), 13.

[4]  R.Roberts, “The Wide World of Muhammad Ali”  in Muhammad Ali The Peoples Champ, ed. Elliot J. Gorn
(Urbana: Univeristy of Illinois Press, 1995), 133.

[5] Roderick P. Hart, Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter. (Thousand Oaks : Sage Publications, 1999), 177.

[6]  Stephen Wagg, ‘They Already Got a Comedian for Governor: Comedians and Politics in the United States and Great Britain in Because I tell a joke or two: comedy, politics, and social difference ed. Stephen Wagg (New York: Routledge, 1998), 271.

[7] Grote. End of comedy, 30.

[8] Bryan Long, “Daily Show viewers ace political quiz: Survey reveals late-night TV viewers better informed Wednesday, September 29, 2004.

[9] Colapinto “Most Trusted Name” Rolling Stone

[10] Marc Peyser, Who's Next 2004: Red, White & Funny: The new year will bring a host of intriguing faces front and center. Politicians. Actors. Tycoons. Educators. And one fake news anchor, bravely battling pomposity and misinformation. Jon Stewart prepares for Campaign 2004., Dec. 29/Jan. 5 issue.

[11] Paul J. Gough, “Daily Show Host Gives Satire a Serious Look Tuesday October 19, 2004.  

[12] Alison Romano, “Record Ratings for Daily Show”Broadcasting & Cable,, October 1, 2004 5:14:00 PM

[13] Bryan Long, “Daily Show

[14] Interview with Jon Stewart, Now With Bill Moyers, PBS: July 11, 2004

[15] Hart. Seducing America,10.

[16] Marc Peyser Who's Next

[17] Neil Postman, Amusing ourselves to death  (New York: Penguin, 1985), 4-5.

[18] David Taras  “The CBC and Canadian Television in the New Media Age” in A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies. (Scarborough, Ontario: ITP Nelson, 1997), 273.

[19] David Taras, “Swimming Against the Current: American Mass Entertainment and Canadian Identity” in Canada and the United

States: Differences that Count.  Edited by David M. Thomas. (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000).

[20] James Compton. The Integrated News Spectacle: A Political Economy of Cultural Performance.  (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004), 2.

[21] Ibid, 113.  

[22] Author unnamed. “No Joke: Daily Show Viewers Follow Presidential Race” The Business Journal, September 21, 2004 12:20 p.m.

[23] Interview with Jon Stewart Crossfire, CNN: October 15, 2004.

[24] Author unnamed. “John Stewart Roasts Real News” October 24, 2004.


[26] Interview with Jon Stewart Crossfire, CNN: October 15, 2004.

[27] Graeme Burton.  Talking Television: An Introduction to the Study of Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 122.

[28] Interview with Jon Stewart, Now With Bill Moyers, PBS: July 11, 2004

[29]Interview with Jon Stewart, Now With Bill Moyers, PBS: July 11, 2004

[30] Interview with Jon Stewart, Now With Bill Moyers, PBS: July 11, 2004