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Journalism, Satire or Just Laughs? “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Examined


Are Americans confused? What is Stewart doing on his program, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, that might cause people to consider him a journalist? How is the show similar to, and different from, what people get from the mainstream press? Beyond that, who—and what—gets skewered by Stewart and company, and who does not?


The results reveal a television program that draws on the news events of the day but picks selectively among them—heavily emphasizing national politics and ignoring other news events entirely. In that regard, The Daily Show closely resembles the news agenda of a number of cable news programs as well as talk radio.

The program also makes heavy use of news footage, often in a documentary way that employs archival video to show contrast and contradiction, even if the purpose is satirical rather than reportorial. At other times, the show also blends facts and fantasy in a way that no news program hopefully ever would. In addition, The Daily Show not only assumes, but even requires, previous and significant knowledge of the news on the part of viewers if they want to get the joke. And, in 2007 at least, the joke was more often on the Bush Administration and its fellow Republicans than on those from the liberal side of the aisle. Among the study’s findings:

  • The program’s clearest focus is politics, especially in Washington. U.S. foreign affairs, largely dominated by the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq, Washington politics and government accounted for nearly half (47%) of the time spent on the program. Overall, The Daily Show news agenda is quite close to those of cable news talk shows.
  • The press itself is another significant focus on The Daily Show. In all, 8% of the time was made up of segments about the press and news media. That is more than double the amount of coverage of media in the mainstream press overall during the same period.
  • A good deal of the news, however, is also absent from The Daily Show. In 2007, for example, major events such as the tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse were never discussed. And the shootings at Virginia Tech, the most covered story within a given week in 2007 by the overall press, received only a cursory mention.
  • Republicans in 2007 tended to bear the brunt of ridicule from Stewart and his crew. From July 1 through November 1, Stewart’s humor targeted Republicans more than three times as often as Democrats. The Bush Administration alone was the focus of almost a quarter (22%) of the segments in this time period.
  • The lineup of on-air guests was more evenly balanced by political party. But our subjective sense from viewing the segments is that Republicans faced harsher criticism during the interviews with Stewart. Whether this is because the show is simply liberal or because the Republicans control the White House is harder to pin down.

Stewart has always insisted that his show isn’t journalism and given its comedic core, its blurring of truth and fiction, and its ignoring of many major events, that is true in a traditional sense.

But it’s also true that, at times, The Daily Show aims at more than comedy. In its choice of topics, its use of news footage to deconstruct the manipulations by public figures and its tendency toward pointed satire over playing just for laughs, The Daily Show performs a function that is close to journalistic in nature—getting people to think critically about the public square. In that sense, it is a variation of the tradition of Russell Baker, Art Hoppe, Art Buchwald, H.L. Mencken and other satirists who once graced the pages of American newspapers.






1. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Today’s Journalists Less Prominent,” March 8, 2007. Available at: 2. Traditional news media consists of a list of 48 news outlets that are a part of PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index. Read the methodology. 3. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions: What Americans Know: 1989-2007.” April 15, 2007. Available at: 4. “Well-informed audiences come from cable (Daily Show/Colbert Report, O’Reilly Factor), the internet (especially major newspaper websites), broadcast TV (NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) and radio (NPR, Rush Limbaugh’s program).” 5. Average total viewers, 2008 year to date. Viewership data provided by Comedy Central, April 29 2008 6. Source: Nielsen Media Research analysis at Available at:’08%20(LIVESD)%20FINAL%20P2%20Cable%20News%20Program%20Ranker.pdf 7. Once in a while guests appear for two separate segments: the second as well as the third. This is most frequently true for the most prominent figures, such as Presidential front-runners etc. Also, in one instance in 2007, a guest interview (with Ali Allawi on April 18) was aired as third and second to last story. A report on the falling stock market was the last story.

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