Minor Threat

Does 'The Daily Show' really make college students apathetic?

Jonathan Morris wants to make something clear. "At no time did we ever say that Jon Stewart is poisoning democracy," says the political-science professor, though you wouldn't have known it from this summer's ample media coverage of "The Daily Show Effect," an article Morris wrote with his East Carolina University colleague Jody Baumgartner. Not long after the piece appeared in the journal American Politics Research, a Washington Post headline asked, "Jon Stewart, Enemy of Democracy?" while MSNBC's Scarborough Countryblared the graphic "IS JON STEWART A THREAT?"

As it turns out, a close reading of "The Daily ShowEffect" reveals it to be decidedly less outrageous than the eye-grabbing rhetorical questions it inspired. Baumgartner and Morris's study found that, during the 2004 presidential election campaign, college-age participants were more likely to have negative perceptions about both parties' candidates after exposure to Stewart's satirical news broadcast. And while watching The Daily Show enhanced the subjects' confidence about their political knowledge, it also increased their cynicism toward politics and news media in general.

Of course, disaffected youth have been around as long as teenagers have, and since Baumgartner and Morris focused on subjects who ordinarily don't watch the program, it's unclear how the Daily Show effect manifests itself in actual (largely left-leaning) fans of The Daily Show, whom your correspondent canvassed outside the Daily Show's studios in Hell's Kitchen one summer afternoon. "Jon Stewart preaches to the choir, not that there's anything wrong with that," says 20-year-old Mark, a rising college sophomore from Madison, who was waiting to attend a Daily Showtaping. "It's like therapy," says Mark's viewing companion Sandy, 19. "The world is crazy and Jon Stewart is like your therapist, helping you get through it."

Stewart: Preaching to the choir?
photo: Norman Jean Roy
Stewart: Preaching to the choir?

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    The anchor-as-shrink analogy recalls Philip Rieff's 1965 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic, in which he defined the "psychological man," who shuns the messy realities of the public arena and turns inward to address his own interests and emotions. We might postulate that the psychological Stewart fan disengages from politics not out of selfishness or ignorance but out of a sense of helplessness—the kind of hysterical-in-all-senses incredulity that produces some of The Daily Show's giddiest contact highs.

    Jean Twenge's recent Generation Me (Free Press) is just the latest book to lament the decline of interest in politics, activism, and voting among young people. "They don't see public service as a noble undertaking at all anymore," says Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University. In this context of alienation, she says, "The problem isn't necessarily criticism or satire of particular political figures but the overall attitude that it's all pointless."

    It may be more instructive to see The Daily Show not as an agent of disaffection so much as a symptom of a larger psychological trend. In Generation Me, Twenge cites 40 years of data from a popular psychological scale that measures "internal" versus "external" personalities. "Internals" feel that they are in control of what happens to them, and have confidence that ordinary citizens can make a difference in political and social affairs. "Externals," however, believe that their lives are largely controlled by outside forces, luck, and fate, and that citizens have little or no chance of influencing a world run by a very few powerful people—an attitude The Daily Show crystallized back in 2004 with their proposed theme for the Republican National Convention: "Fuck You, What Are You Going to Do About It?"

    According to a study by Twenge and her colleagues, external control beliefs among college students increased by about 50 percent between the 1960s and the 2000s. By the researchers' yardstick, the average college student in the early 2000s is more "external"—that is to say, more cynical—than 80 percent of her early-'60s forebears. The long-term effects of rising externality are clear and grim. "The impression is that there's nothing I can do and it's all going to hell, and you can see that in kids as young as nine," says Twenge. "Some of it is actually realism and practicality, but some of it is counterproductive cynicism.

    "Everything that externality correlates with is horrible: bad academic performance, depression, anxiety, alienation," Twenge continues. "And yet the argument makes sense—of course we can't all change the world. Certainly for young people who are left of center, this last presidential election was a lesson in cynicism." Since Twenge's Generation Me is akin to a big-tent Generation X, perhaps that epoch-defining aphorism from Slacker still applies: "Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy."

     
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