Katelyn Kelly

Debate Paper #1

Does Comedy News Enhance Political and Environmental Literacy?

October 16, 2012

Word Count: 1704

According to the Merriam-Webster, literacy is defined as a familiarity with literature and to a basic level of education obtained through written word. (Merriam-Webster) Assuming that the average American has had at least education from an elementary and secondary school, it is presumable that the average American therefore has the full capabilities to receive information regarding current affairs through a multitude of media; television, written articles and through the internet. Furthermore, since the introduction of the television in the United States as an alternative to the radio as a means of media, Americans have been using the television for pleasure rather than its original suggest use. The same can be said of the internet with its intent on being able to spread information to all corners of the world while now the majority of Americans use the internet for entertainment. Thus it is a wise decision by a handful of comedians to take advantage of this audience and spread their philosophy and insight on political subjects through satirical and comedic means. By using the abused form of entertainment, these comedians are able to send their messages about current affairs and thus up the basic knowledge of these Americans, thus in fact enhancing political and environmental literacy.
Satire and comedy have been used to portray politics to Americans since the invention of the printing press and newspaper in the United States, or in the Revolutionary War Era. This trend continues with major newspapers and their websites with political cartoons. While these satirical cartoons and drawings are made with the intent of poking fun and mocking current politics and politicians, they are based on factual events and thus portray an accurate representation of the current goings on of the world and the United States. Following the invention of the radio as a means of communication and broadcasting, technologies in this area began to peak with the commercialization boom during the post-World War II era. After the extensive use of radio broadcasting throughout World War II and with technologies in television beginning to be finalized, the television emerged as the new way to broadcast news, athletic competitions, and special events such as presidential speeches or inaugurations. This led the way to television becoming what is today, not only one of the major forms of news broadcasting, but also as one of the leading forms of entertainment in the United States. (Marc, David)
With the use of television steering away from news broadcasting and leaning towards new companies emerging to use television as a means of entertainment and profit, television transformed to what it is today. The invention of the internet went down a similar path with the invention of internet intending to make information accessible to all people across the nation and across the world, but ending up as another means of entertainment for the majority of users rather than information broadcasting. This trend is especially apparent in the younger generations of the United States who were born into the technology era where laptops and computers are introduced to most American elementary schoolers, phones and video games are an integral part of everyday life, and classrooms in some high schools and the majority of universities and colleges rely on the internet and use of laptops to assign work, post resources, and grade work through the use of servers. Thus with the age of the average newscaster for stations such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC being about sixty years old, (Lundgren, Kate) and with the steady popularity of satirical comedy as a means of relaying current affairs, a lane opens up for satirical comedy to evolve into television and the internet as a new means of perception of news.
Two of these major players in satirical comedy in new forms of information technology have emerged as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Jon Stewart graduated in 1984 from The College of William & Mary with a degree in psychology. (imdb.com) He first emerged in modern technology media as the host of The Daily Show in 1999. While host of The Daily Show, Stewart introduced Americans to the idea of a satirical comedy show with his play on the presidential campaign with his comedic critique titled “Indecision 2000.” Stewart’s popularity has only increased since his introduction in 1999 as his popularity with television viewers continues to grow. (Smith, Chris) His show continues to involve current politics in the form of a satirical comedy news show, while occasionally interviewing important and influential figures such as JK Rowling, the current President, Mr. Barack Obama, and His Majesty King Abdullah II, king of Jordan. (“Green Room”)
Another popular and rising figure in the comedy news industry is Stephen Colbert, who has just as much influence on the younger generation as Stewart. Stephen Colbert graduated in 1986 from Northwestern University with a degree in Theatre after transferring from two years of study in Hampden-Sydney College in philosophy. With this degree and knowledge, he is able, like Stewart, to combine his knowledge of philosophy, current affairs, and use of the available modern information technology to create a similarly comedic satirical show on current affairs, much like Stewart’s. (Schiller, Allen) As host of his own satirical show, The Colbert Report, which has the same repertoire as Stewart’s The Daily Show, Colbert also hosts a variety of influential guests as well as making light of current affairs to his viewing audience.
Combined, the hosts have covered topics from the grab bag to major events, especially current elections, current military affairs, and the influence of major figures from both entertainment and politics. As noted by Rachel Smolkin, the two hosts have also spurred an internet spark of people speaking their minds and lashing out on figures and activists who they believe to be liars. (Smolkin, Rachel) These critiques vary from the satirical comedy of Stewart and Colbert to an angry retort of a recent event. However, the fact remains that these two hosts are upping the general knowledge and awareness of current events and are thus increasing the literacy of these policies. With ratings rising and a viewer population of a younger and more influential generation, combined with powerful figures as guests such as these on comedy news shows, it is conclusive that Americans receive news in a form such as satire and pick up on political information just as or even more effectively than other means of news broadcasting. The argument here, however is that these types of shows increase the political and environmental literacy of viewers, which with this correlation is also easily conclusive.
Younger generations that see these shows and to which these shows are targeted, have the most potential in politics and activism in politics and environmental policy; specifically college students who are extremely active in environmental law and very influential in any current election. These hosts have had such an impact on college students, in fact that their effect on students has been coined “The Stephen Colbert Effect.” This effect is described by Paul Farhi as something to be concerned about in which univeristies have become “obsessed” with satirical comedy and specifically Stephen Colbert to the point where undergraduate institutions are offering courses and seminars in fields of study involving the study of politics and satire, and where graduate students are writing theses and dissertations on the subject of the impact of Stephen Colbert and the impact of satire on a news audience. Farhi believes that this comedy portrayal of news is of concern for growing generations, while this is just a lack of approval of new forms of communication and information. In other words, as stated before, the newer generations have grown up with and accustomed to digital forms of media that are comfortable to these generations, television and the internet being major players. (Farhi, Paul) In fact, a similarly satirical news source, the Onion, which may come off to those of an alternative sense of humor as offensive, takes current affairs and events and specifically turns them on their head, making them ridiculous to the point of comedy with a hint of news. However, again, this is a result of the satirical political cartoon first seen during colonial times evolving with the ever-changing news environment, not a result of a dumber population. For example, the Onion article titled “EPA: Stubborn Environment Refusing To Meet Civilization Halfway” is clearly stating the expectations of mankind with the environment are unrealistic and need to be adjusted. Obviously, the environment is effected by what humans put into it and how humans go about using it, which is captured by the article. (cite 9)
Critics and journalists for newspapers such as the Washington Post who claim that Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and other satirical news forms are relatable to the “dumbing down” of growing generations, however they are nothing more than the evolution of satirical political cartoons from the colonial era. It is therefore conclusive that with the evolution of both satire and forms of media, the younger generation is influenced and open to these satirical forms of information to gain their views on the current political system.

Works Cited
“EPA: Stubborn Environment Refusing To Meet Civilization Halfway.” the Onion. 12 May 2010. Web. 14 October 2012. <http://www.theonion.com/articles/epa-stubborn-environment-refusing-to-meet-civiliza,17418/>

Farhi, Paul. “Truthinessology: The Stephen Colbert effect becomes an obsession in academia.” The Washington Post. 9 July 2012. Web. 14 October 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/truthinessology-the-stephen-colbert-effect-becomes-an-obsession-in-academia/2012/07/09/gJQAYgiHZW_story.html>

“Green Room.” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Web. 14 October 2012. <www.thedailyshow.com/guests>

“Jon Stewart.” Biography, imdb.com. Web. 14 October 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0829537/bio>

"literacy." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. 14 October 2012. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literacy>

Lundgren, Kate. “The Changing News Landscape.” MediaSource 2012. Web. 14 October 2012. <http://mstv.mfsites.com/install/install/blog/blogpost/tabid/73/articleid/51/the-changing-news-landscape.aspx>

Marc, David. “Broadcasting, Radio and Television.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000.
http://encarta.msn.com. 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. Web. 14 October 2012. <http://autocww.colorado.edu/~toldy3/E64ContentFiles/CinemaAndBroadcasting/Broadcasting,RadioAndTV.html>
Schiller, Allen, edited. I am Philosophy (And So Can You!). Open Court Publishing Company. Web. 14 October 2012. < http://www.opencourtbooks.com/books_n/stephen_colbert.htm>
Smith, Chris. “America Is a Joke.” New York TV, New York Magazine. Web. 14 October 2012. < http://nymag.com/arts/tv/profiles/68086/>
Smolkin, Rachel. “What the Mainstream Media Can Learn From Jon Stewart.” American Journalism Review. ajr.org. Web. 14 October 2012. < http://www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=4329>