Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Summing Up II

Yesterday I started to sum up what we know about media and political knowledge. An exercise in futility? Maybe. But it's spring break and if I'm not doing this I'll be outside painting the house. Lemme have my futility instead.

My earlier post focused on TV news. Now let's turn to another form of TV, that lovable hybrid called entertainment-faux-fake-news.

In other words, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. But also, if you stretch the definition, those late-night talk shows and even daytime programs.

So, what do we know?

Not a hell of a lot. I've read a lot of research about the two big programs. Done some myself. There is some suggestion that the folks who watch these two shows are already pretty high in political knowledge and kinda young too, an interesting combo. Mostly younger people do poorly on tests of political knowledge. My own work suggests that, for the least knowledgeable, these programs don't help a lot. Other work suggests they do.

And then there's the recent fun piece about Colbert's program nudging people to the political right.

In general two arguments emerge: these programs are the best things to happen to democracy, or these programs are the worst things to happen to democracy. Is satire and parody a good thing? Haven't we always had satire and parody? Is getting at the truth more important than following what to the public seems like obscure, silly, journalistic routines that balance a story to the point of giving even lying idiots a say?

Back to what we know. The audience is knowledgeable, some learning takes place, and these programs do feed how people interpret politicians and public figures. Ridicule is a powerful weapon, one Saturday Night Live did quite well in the 1970s with President Gerald Ford. But too much, some research suggests, might tip us over to even less trust in government. Yeah, trust is hardly a sexy thing to promote, but a democracy rests on a stable reservoir of trust existing out there, something drawn on when times get tough -- oh, like now.

Summing up my summing up -- we don't know a lot about the effects of these programs. Parody and satire and faux news seems to inform a few, entertain a lot, but there are suggestions that the laughter gets in the way of real learning. The most powerful effect may be a negative attitude toward the public figures ridiculed by these guys. Whether that's a good thing remains to be seen.

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