THE DAILY SHOW REVISITED. I awoke this morning to a gleeful Lee Siegel post trumpeting a new study that shows, just as Siegel predicted, that exposure to The Daily Show turns viewers off of politics. "Jon Stewart's show," Siegel wrote, "is destroying democracy as we know it."
Only it isn't. Siegel got his information from a woefully incomplete Washington Post column on the subject, whose author either didn't read the paper he purported to explain or didn't understand it. The actual findings were that Stewart's show increases cynicism towards politics, but included no data showing that heightened cynicism decreases participation (indeed, I'd expect it wouldn't). Determined to get to the bottom of this, I employed a variant of the secret reporter tactic of PUTDP (Picking Up The Damn Phone) and sent John Morris, one of the study's authors, an e-mail. Here was his reply:
Bloggers and the mainstream media have overstated our findings greatly. Our study does not argue that Jon Stewart is "poisoning" democracy. We simply link exposure to the program with increases in cynicism, and demonstrate that, from an attitudinal perspective, the effects of his show on public opinion are not necessarily benign. We then speculate in the conclusion section on the possible behavioral consequences (particularly voting) and urge future research to look in that direction.
I'd like to blame the pernicious influence of blogofascism, which has clearly degraded Siegel's innate skepticism, but prominent blogofascist Duncan Black actually got this right. The real fault seems to lie with The Washington Post, which took a decidedly glass-half-empty approach to a pretty ambiguous paper. Here's the actual conclusion:
Citizens who understand politics are more likely to participate than those who do not. Moreover, the increased cynicism associated with decreased external efficacy may contribute to an actively critical orientation toward politics. This may translate into better citizenship, because a little skepticism toward the political system could be considered healthy for democracy. However, decreased external efficacy may dampen participation among an already cynical audience (young adults) by contributing to a sense of alienation from the political process. And it has been demonstrated that lowered trust can perpetuate a more dysfunctional political system.
So more research is needed. Also more picking up of the damn phone/e-mail.