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Culturally Corrosive Comedy: The Daily Show & Colbert Report
By Ted Baehr and Tom Snyder
Ever since research pointed out that up to ninety percent of today’s children are abandoning the faith and values of their parents by the time they finish college, there has been a growing concern about the corrosive effect of the media on our youth. As Senator Joseph Lieberman noted at a 2003 media research forum, “More than three decades worth of research…has firmly established that the electronic media has a powerful influence on the attitudes, values and behavior of America’s children, and that this influence has only grown larger as the amount of time young people spend consuming media has grown greater.” Most of this research has focused on the depiction of violence in the media. A growing number of studies, however, have touched on consumerism, and a few have dealt with pornography and sex.
The evidence suggests that the mass media has an incredibly powerful effect, for good and ill, on the hearts and minds of every citizen, but especially children and teenagers. In fact, using media consumption statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America, it can be extrapolated that by the time he or she is seventeen years old, the average child in the United States will have spent more than 54,000 hours seeing, hearing, reading, and interacting with various aspects of the mass media, from movies and television to video games and Internet Web sites. That compares to only 832 total hours in church, if the child goes once a week for one hour every year. Sadly, these statistics strongly indicate that the mass media, not the church, creates the worldviews, attitudes, and scripts of behavior for most children and teenagers in America.
What the research community has not studied in depth, however (although it has had a tremendous impact on our culture), is the effects of modern satire and humor, especially political satire in TV programs such as Saturday Night Live, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. As Chevy Chase noted on the day of the 2008 presidential election in an interview with Newsweek, Saturday Night Live targeted Sen. John McCain’s vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for ridicule, just as they had once targeted Gerald Ford. Ford was portrayed as a bumbling idiot, even though he graduated near the top of his class at Yale Law School. With Palin, they subtly twisted her words to make her appear to be an airhead. Subsequent to the election, surveys showed that the voters actually thought that Gov. Palin said some of the stupid things that were merely the sarcastic humor on Saturday Night Live.
Young people in particular are easily duped by such humor, so much so that an unscientific online Time poll found that comedian Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, is considered a more trusted “newscaster” than the anchors of the three evening network news programs.
POLITICAL RIDICULE ON THE RAMPAGE
Although political satire has a long and distinguished tradition in literature, this modern way of ridiculing cultural and political opponents actually is a tried and true method borrowed from such New Left leaders of the 1950s and 1960s as Saul Alinsky, author of the guidebook Rules for Radicals (Random House, 1971). Picking a personality like Sarah Palin as a target and then ridiculing the target are two of Alinsky’s eleven basic rules for radical “community organizers.”
Two people who do this quite effectively on a continual basis are Steven Colbert of The Colbert Report and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Stewart sometimes undermines himself by getting too intense, but Colbert always maintains a finer balance that gives a phony authenticity to his humor. Colbert is an interesting character. In a cover story interview with Rolling Stone magazine in the September 2009 issue, he admitted that, as a Roman Catholic, he has some degree of traditional faith and values. When asked if faith still plays a big part in his life, Colbert, who teaches catechism Sunday school for seven-year-olds, replied:
Very much. I am highly variable in my devotion. From a doctrinal point of view or a dogmatic point of view or a strictly Catholic adherent point of view, I’m first to say that I talk a good game, but I don’t know how good I am about it in practice. I saw how my mother’s faith was very valuable to her and valuable to my brothers and sisters, and I’m moved by the words of Christ, and I’ll leave it at that.
Despite these comments from Colbert, the fact remains that both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show seem to reflect a left-oriented, anti-Christian viewpoint, politically, culturally, theologically, and philosophically. Both shows seem to revel in mocking the more conservative sides of the political and religious spectrum. In fact, of all the two programs’ shows and excerpts we watched recently, the only time that one of them truly mocked President Barack Obama was on the August 17, 2009, episode of The Daily Show, when Stewart complained about a recent statement by the president that appeared to back away from support for the controversial “public option” part of health care reform legislation.
Most of the barbs spewed by Stewart on The Daily Show seem to be directed at conservative, moderate, and libertarian political opponents of the leftist platform of the Democratic Party, including members of the so-called “religious right,” rather than Christianity or Christians in general. Stewart does have guests, however, that are critical of religion or Christians, as does Colbert, who makes the most of such comedic opportunities. On August 18, 2009, for example, Colbert conducted a mock interview of Robert Wright, the author of the poorly researched, contentious book The Evolution of God.
Colbert’s interview with Wright is instructive, because it illustrates both Colbert’s approach to his show and his public approach to Christianity. In his show, Colbert assumes the fictional persona of a Bill O’Reilly clone, with a touch of Rush Limbaugh. In essence, he creates an exaggerated, straw man conservative who bears little or no resemblance to real conservatives. Thus, in the interview with Wright, Colbert mocks Wright’s anti-Christian skepticism of the God of the Bible and Christianity, but does so in a flamboyant, comical tone that undercuts his criticisms of Wright. Secondly, he fails to refute Wright’s use of two long-discredited theories of the “evolution” of the idea of God—that ancient man was polytheistic, and that Paul invented his own international brand of Christianity that was different from what Jesus Christ and Christ’s other apostles taught. Finally, despite his clever questioning of Wright, Colbert concludes with a serious comment that Wright’s book is “fascinating.” Thus, even if Colbert’s fictional persona sometimes lands real punches against such a leftist, humanist, or atheist like Wright and his ideology, Colbert’s fictional on-air persona sends signals to the savvy viewer that ultimately seem to support a leftist, humanist, anti-Christian worldview while ridiculing people with a more conservative worldview.
Jon Stewart is much more direct and overt in his style of satire than Colbert. Before a segment usually featuring a political guest, Stewart picks out a few political or cultural topics of the day from cable TV news for his special brand of satire and ridicule. This news segment is usually designed to make fun of conservative, libertarian, and moderate politicians and activists opposed to Stewart’s leftist ideology, or of cable news pundits, hosts, and reporters, especially conservative-leaning ones appearing on the Fox News Channel. In doing so he generally shows a bunch of quick, isolated clips that tend to distort what actually happened or what was actually said. Stewart uses such clips to mock the person in the clip, as if to say, “How dare this person oppose my leftist agenda and the agenda of the Democratic Party’s left wing!”
There is a grave danger here with this kind of TV satire. How can the viewer know whether the clips in question have been taken out of context?
One series of clips on August 17, 2009 misrepresenting comments that Bill O’Reilly made on his Fox news show The O’Reilly Factor is a case in point. The clips show clearly that Stewart had edited out some of O’Reilly’s comments to make O’Reilly look as bad and as hypocritical as possible. O’Reilly had said that most anti-Bush protestors in New York at a 2004 campaign event had been “peaceful,” but that more than 1,000 people had been arrested and “surveys show many protestors are simply loons, calling for the destruction of the American system, calling for retreat in the face of terrorism.” Stewart cut out O’Reilly’s comments about the peaceful protestors, the arrests, destroying the American system, and retreating in the face of terrorism, and only aired O’Reilly’s comment that many anti-Bush protestors “are simply loons.”
This biased, deceitful reporting does not seem to be a rare occurrence on The Daily Show. Time and again, Stewart inserts short out-of-context clips of Republicans, conservatives, moderates, libertarians, and cable news commentators to ridicule them personally and attack their ideology or reporting. Thus, only if one spends the day watching the original clips of these people, in context, can one really—and fairly—understand what each person was actually saying or doing, without Stewart’s clearly biased, left-wing sarcasm.
One of the most popular segments on The Daily Show was the weekly feature (since discontinued), “This Week in God,” where one of the show’s correspondents delivered a comedic commentary about a few religious news items each week. Although this segment sometimes mocked non-Christian cults such as Scientology, it typically ridiculed religion in general, including the Bible, the Bible’s concept of God, Christianity, and Christian leaders. It also sometimes ridiculed the news media’s infrequent news reports and discussions concerning religion.
An instructive example was the December 16, 2004, “This Week in God” segment with Stephen Colbert, where Colbert briefly mocked the idea of God speaking to individual people. He then ridiculed the radical Muslim group Hezbollah’s news channel Al-Manar, which was banned in France for spreading the false, racist libel about Jews using Christian blood for their matzo bread. Following that, Colbert mocked the biblical concept of the Sabbath, Jewish dietary laws, and then ridiculed Pat Robertson for saying on his TV show The 700 Club that the holiday of Kwanzaa was invented by “hippie types on the West Coast.” Using a false analogy to get laughs from the live audience, Colbert then compared an illustration of Jesus Christ and His apostles to the “long-haired” hippie types that Robertson was criticizing.
Earlier on that same show, Stewart ridiculed comments against Hollywood on MSNBC made by William Donohue of The Catholic League, a conservative advocacy group defending the Catholic Church and Catholic doctrine. Stewart took the opportunity to ask his audience, “What the [obscenity deleted] is wrong with that guy?”
Thus, even though both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report mostly focus on the politics of the day, their left-oriented viewpoint reflects a radical, smug humanist or atheist worldview that does indeed sometimes ridicule and attack the biblical view of God, as well as Jewish beliefs, Christianity, and Christian leaders, especially conservative Christian leaders appearing on TV. And, heaven forbid if those Christians speak out against modern culture in some way, especially homosexuality, or become active in a political debate that threatens the liberal or radical leftist worldviews Stewart supports!
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SATIRE
Satire has a long tradition in literature going back to the Greek playwright Aristophanes and developed by Roman writers such as Gaius Lucilius, Horace, and Juvenal. In fact, Jesus Christ Himself derisively attacks the moral hypocrisy and legalistic theology of the Pharisees in such passages as Matthew 23:1–39, Mark 7:1–23, and Mark 12:38.
Satire began as an attack on immorality and human vices, but only later developed into forms of religious and political satire full of wit, irony, ridicule, and derision. Thus, Voltaire ridiculed the religious and social conventions of his day in the mid 1700s to promote the anti-religious worldview of the French Enlightenment. Before that, Jonathan Swift used political satire to defend the policies of the new Tory government in the early 1700s.
Ridicule, sarcastic cynicism, and obscenity are the lowest forms of satire, however, because they often attack the person rather than the idea or the behavior, setting up a straw man that doesn’t exist but that can more easily be knocked down. A straw man is an easy target designed to inflate the ego of the person making the attack while unjustly deflating the ego and destroying the reputation of the person being attacked. As such, it violates the biblical commandment not to bear false witness against another human being.
Ridicule, sarcastic cynicism, and obscenity also promote a corrosive atmosphere, a rebellious attitude, and a nihilistic mindset that corrupts our relationship not only with our neighbor, but also our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In that sense, therefore, they violate the two greatest commandments our Lord recited in Mark 12:28–34: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Be that as it may, a satirical piece of literature using ridicule, sarcasm, obscenity, and derision is different from satire in a visual medium such as television or film. To ridicule someone in television or movies, in short segments that often take the victim’s words out of context, is far different than ridiculing a person in print. In print, an argument can be taken apart and examined thoughtfully for its truthfulness, including whether the argument has sufficient factual evidence to support it and whether the argument has fairly represented its opponent’s behavior and arguments.
Such is not the case, however, with the drive-by satirical attacks featured on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. As noted above, the problem becomes even more acute because of the often disingenuous and unjust manipulation of edited clips used to ridicule anyone who does not share the secular leftist worldview of Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and their writers.
The fact that Stewart was picked as the most trusted newscaster in an unscientific Internet poll on a website geared toward a younger audience should be disturbing to anyone, especially in these contentious times of economic meltdown, worldwide terrorism, and tumultuous debate. The effects of Stewart on the culture become even more disturbing considering that, when Americans were asked in a more scientific poll which journalist they most admired, Stewart came in fourth, tied with Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Dan Rather, and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. And, they picked Stewart despite the fact that, according to a study of the content of The Daily Show during 2007 by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center, “Stewart’s humor targeted Republicans more than three times as often as Democrats” from July 1, 2007, through November 1, 2007.
Ironically, when Stewart appeared on CNN’s political debate show Crossfire with liberal pundit Paul Begala and conservative pundit Tucker Carlson in 2004, Stewart complained that both men acted like “partisan hacks” on the show. Considering the proven partisan nature of Stewart’s own show, this is strange criticism indeed. At least Begala and Carlson offered serious, somewhat in-depth discussion of the issues. Compared to them, Stewart comes across as a real political hack who distorts the character of his ideological opponents but only criticizes Democrats when they fail to live up to his leftist, secular, anti-Christian ideals.
MEDIA WISDOM FOR THE VISUAL AGE
Given all this, what should Christians, and Christian parents, do about programs and movies such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, and Michael Moore’s films? How should they approach them and handle their influence?
First, it is important to be media wise, to realize that visual media such as TV and film are, first and foremost, entertainment. They should not be used to determine any kind of truth, much less truth about politics and religion.
Second, realize that cameras never tell the whole truth because they give only a limited, unnatural perspective on a particular scene and situation. For example, a camera can give a close-up or a wide-angle shot, but the camera always leaves something out. Thus, when covering a rally or protest demonstration, a TV news or talk program, including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, can focus only on the most outrageous signs with extremist statements, or it can instead focus on typical, less controversial signs that more fairly represent the participants at such an event. After all, most rallies or protest demonstrations tend to attract extremists of all stripes.
Third, filmmakers and television producers can edit scenes together to make you believe one thing when the opposite may be the case. For example, Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine edited a controversial speech Charlton Heston gave to make it appear that Heston was being insensitive to the students who died during the school murders in Littleton, Colorado.
Fourth, television programs and movies can leave out important facts. For example, in his 2007 movie Sicko on America’s healthcare system, Moore leaves out the fact that the life expectancy among Americans is lower than other industrialized nations because the United States has a higher homicide rate, as well as a higher rate of urban poverty that results in lower life expectancies when compared to the more homogeneous population of such countries as Japan.
Fifth, television viewers and moviegoers should examine the factual documentation in a piece of cinema or video. Does the piece present any historical documents or government records to prove its case? What other sources does the piece use? Are these documents, records, and sources factually reliable? Or, are they just presenting a bunch of unverified, biased opinions?
Sixth, readers and viewers should ask whether the piece of cinema or video fairly presents all the major sides of an argument. If it’s an attack piece, does it properly present the views and arguments of the person, people, or thing being attacked? If the answer to these questions is yes, then does the piece present credible, rational, and factual arguments to effectively refute the arguments presented by its opposition?
Seventh, if the piece talks about the Bible, the United States Constitution, or a contemporary issue, then readers and viewers should know as much about the actual content and context of those things as possible. Otherwise, they will be subject to false, idiosyncratic opinions about those subjects.
Finally, in order to know the truth about reality, all television viewers and moviegoers need an instructional manual, an ultimate authority on which they can rely. The Bible is the best, most reliable, most truthful, most moral, most beautiful, most factual, most rational, most logical, most historical, and most profound instructional manual on the face of this planet. By knowing, studying, and using the truth that the Bible reports, we can know the truth about the comments, opinions, and value judgments of the people, movies, videos, and TV programs in our social and cultural environment.
Armed with this knowledge and the principles listed above, we have shown the corrosive, unduly biased nature of the secular, leftist, anti-Christian, anti-biblical worldview of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
To find out more about teaching your family to be media- and culture-wise, see Ted Baehr and Pat Boone, eds., The Culture-Wise Family: Upholding Christian Values in a Mass Media World (Ventura, CA; Regal, 2007).
“Prepared Statement of Senator Joe Lieberman,” Media Research Forum, April 9, 2003, http://cdmc.georgetown.edu/media_gap/lieberman.pdf.
Jeff J. McIntyre, “Testimony before the United States Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on the Impact of Media Violence on Children,” American Psychological Association, June 26, 2007, http://www.apa.org/about/gr/pi/advocacy/2007/mcintyre-media.aspx.
“Report on the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls,” American Psychological Association, 2007, http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx.
“Media Consumption,” 2007 Entertainment Industry Market Statistics, Motion Picture Association of America, March 2008, http://www.mpaa.org/USEntertainmentIndustryMarketStats.pdf.
“Chevy Chase: I Wanted Carter To Win,” CNN.com, November 3, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/TV/11/03/chevy.chase.snl/index.html.
“Zogby Poll: Almost No Obama Voters Ace Election Test,” Zogby International, November 18, 2008, http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.cfm?ID=1642.
Steve Johnson, “Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Man in America?” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 2009.
Neil Strauss, “Stephen Colbert on Deconstructing the News, Religion and the Colbert Nation,” Rolling Stone, HYPERLINK “http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/29956798/stephen_colbert_on_deconstructing_the_news_religion_and_the_colbert_nation/5” http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/29956798/stephen_colbert_on_deconstructing_the_
news_religion_and_the_colbert_nation/5, September 2, 2009.
For refutations of these two theories, see Tom Snyder, Myth Conceptions: Joseph Campbell and the New Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 159–201; J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973); and Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P and R Publishing, 2003).
“The Daily Show: Journalism, Satire or Just Laughs?” Pew Research Center, May 8, 2008, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/829/the-daily-show-journalism-satire-or-just-laughs.
Lisa de Moraes, “Left Hooks and Right Jabs: Stewart Tangles with Carlson,” The Washington Post, October 16, 2004.
Editor’s note: “This article originally appeared in the Christian Research Journal, vol. 33, no. 2, 2010. For information about the Journal please write to: CRI International, P.O. Box 8500