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Danna Young

The Annenberg Election Survey and News Satire: Interview with Danna Young (part 2 of 2)


On September 21, 2004, the National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES) issued a press release entitled Daily Show Viewers Knowledgeable About Presidential Campaign. Though timed to appear the day after John Kerry's appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, it gained the most attention when it became part of the media frenzy over Bill O'Reilly's assertion that viewers of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart were "stoned slackers."

Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, a senior analyst at Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, was responsible for that press release. More specifically, she developed the portion of the NAES that addressed media use and public opinion, with a specific focus on how late night comedy affects the opinions of the voting public.

This is the second part of a two-part interview. (For Part 1 of this interview, click here.)

"...If you're watching The Daily Show, you'd better know who Paul Bremer and George Tenet are, or you're gonna be lost. You wouldn't get it if you were just tuning in to The Daily Show and no other news."

CP!: Do you find that there's any sort of "open-mindedness" effect, for lack of a better way of putting it, that may also factor into whether, say, folks of a liberal persuasion can listen to a John Kerry joke and still laugh about it?

DGY: One of the things I'm really curious about is how partisanship plays a role in whether or not you're willing to go along with the joke. And obviously, if you're a Democrat, you're going to find a joke insulting Kerry less funny than a joke insulting Bush. But I don't think -- and this is just based on my understanding of the psychology of political ideology -- that this is a symmetrical effect. I don't think that Republicans and Democrats are exactly the same that way, and I'll tell you why.

First, we know that when you ask Republicans how liberal various Democratic figures are, they think that they're super-liberal. You ask Democrats how conservative they think Republican public officials are, they put them a little bit on the right, but not as far to the right as Republicans put Democrats to the left. So it's not a symmetrical distancing.

Same thing happens when you ask Republicans and Democrats to judge overall favorability of various public officials on the other side. And the way that I've heard it summarized is this: Democrats don't really like Republicans, but Republicans hate Democrats. And this is more than just a study or two. I think that it is seeing an outgroup as far, far away from you. And maybe because with Democrats, it's like the Big Tent Party, they have people who fall in various places in it, and they probably talk more about their own differences than Republicans do. It could be that you're more likely to be open to the possibility that, "Oh maybe that person's not super-far away."

CP!: One of the nice things about your particular study, too -- even though you're analyzing the jokes themselves, and the numbers -- I'm gathering that whether the joke is funny doesn't necessarily come into the process for you.

DGY: For the kinds of things I've been working on recently it hasn't come into play. Except for the question of how Leno and Letterman jokes are different from Stewart jokes, where I think Leno and Letterman are really trying to get the most bang for their buck, which doesn't necessarily mean a joke that is super-clever and super-smart, but it means that it's a joke that everyone can laugh at.

But the tricky thing there is, I've had debates with [my colleagues at the Annenberg School] about how Leno and Letterman are just not funny. It's just so base. Well, if you're not reading the newspaper every day, and you're not living and breathing this stuff, it's funny!

CP!: Because it's playing to that lowest common denominator, and that means the lowest amount of knowledge on the subject.

DGY: Right. And if you're watching The Daily Show, you'd better know who Paul Bremer and George Tenet are, or you're gonna be lost. You wouldn't get it if you were just tuning in to The Daily Show and no other news. It is a little bit parasitic in the sense that its success is completely contingent upon the existence of a well-known genre. So when people say, "Oh, are people watching The Daily Show and not watching regular news?" Well, the data don't say that.

CP!: Like a Peter Jennings, ABC World News Tonight. Are they watching any actual news program, or are they watching punditry?

DGY: Probably punditry. They're watching 24-hour cable news channels, and they're far more likely -- and this could be the age gap as well, that's responsible for this -- they're far more likely to be using the Internet. It's an interesting crowd. And one of the things that gets me excited about it is that it's a subpopulation that no one's really wanted to talk about. They're young and they're knowledgeable and they're interested. They're tuning in, and they're gonna vote.

CP!: Are you also looking at whether late night comedy sways people's opinions?

DGY: Absolutely. And one of the things there that I'm interested in is electability and viability. Because one of the big Leno and Letterman jokes during the [Democratic] primaries for a lot of the candidates was like, "They have no chance in hell." Like a Kucinich, or a Lieberman. Same with Wesley Clark -- he turned into one of those, too. So, how is that related to how people saw these [candidate's] chances, really, in the primary? And [through the NAES], we can track all those things.

CP!: Are you sampling people who say, "No, I don't watch any late night political comedy," and tracking what their opinions are versus the people who do watch it, to see how they differ?

DGY: That's right, and I think that people imagine that if you looked at these lines over time - and let's say we asked how angry Howard Dean is.

Maybe people would think that the late night viewers would have this huge increase and the people who don't watch late night would not. Actually, we'd never find an effect that strong, because late night is based on what's in regular news. You're never gonna find an effect that's huge like that. What you'll probably find is that the lines move similarly, but one of them might be higher than the other.

CP!: But when network media picks up on the Dean Scream, did they pick up on it because it was comedy that was highlighting it first? Does any political comedy set the tone for the national discourse on any particular issues as they come up?

DGY: With the Dean Scream, it was something that was in the news media first, and then it got picked up by late night. But one of the things [The Daily Show] was able to do, when it came to the War in Iraq, they were telling stories and reporting in a way that the news media hadn't been doing yet, early on, in terms of bringing up questions about intelligence. Because they're not waiting for the news media to bring up a caricature of the candidate to then run with, like a Leno or Letterman, they're able to do something different, which is criticize exactly the news norms that create those caricatures in the first place.

"Because [The Daily Show isn't] waiting for the news media to bring up a caricature of the candidate to then run with, like a Leno or Letterman, they're able to do something different, which is criticize exactly the news norms that create those caricatures in the first place."

CP!: It's more about the format of The Daily Show?

DGY: Yes, and also the "Headlines," and segments in between are often pretty caustic in terms of criticizing the norms, particularly of cable news -- like, "What is wrong with you people? Why aren't your journalists asking these questions?"

Another aspect of The Daily Show that I think deserves a lot of attention is not central to the work I do (but there are other people who are studying this) is the nature of the interviews [Jon Stewart] does. He plays the fool, and says, "Well, can you explain this to me? Because I don't really get it." And in doing so, he makes these guests get beyond the talking points, challenging them without seeming aggressive, which is this remarkable ploy. [Stewart's take on talking points is] you can watch all the cable channels and they're all saying the same thing. And why? Talking points.

CP!: With Leno and Letterman, they can only really play at the level of simplicity, unfortunately, just by the sheer nature [of their shows' formats]. Could you possibly make the rationalization that people who have a lower educational level would tend to be looking at issues in a more simplistic manner, and so that form of comedy would be the kind to appeal to them?

DGY: Yeah, and I would say that not only would it maybe appeal to them, because they'd be more likely to get it, but one of the things I'm particularly interested in is those people who might not have as much political knowledge, or know as much about the campaign, but might be more affected by exposure to late-night jokes, because they don't have this sort of storehouse of information to help counter any individual claim that comes at them.

In 2000, I found that watching late night comedy was not significantly related to how people viewed the candidates in terms of change over time.

I looked at how honest and charismatic they saw Gore, because those were his two big traits, and how knowledgeable they saw Bush, that was his big trait, in terms of latenight content. What I did find, though, is when you look just at those people who are low in political knowledge, who don't know a lot about the campaign, who fell in the bottom third in terms of scoring on about 24 different questions we asked -

CP!: Doesn't mean that they're retarded, just that they don't have this particular set of knowledge.

DGY: [Laughing] Correct. The knowledge is specifically about politics, government, where the candidates stand on issues, and certain questions about candidate biographies. So when you look at that bottom third, and when those people are watching late night comedy, they were more likely to shift in terms of how inspiring they saw Al Gore, as a function of watching these late night shows. They were more likely to see him in keeping with his caricature trait, as less and less inspiring over time. Which is something that you don't see with people who have higher levels of knowledge.

So that's where, in terms of influence, I'm most interested, because you're talking about people who maybe aren't a watching a ton of other news, and if they're not politically knowledgeable, but they are watching these late night shows, how could this political information play a privileged role for them?

CP!: Right, which then goes to the question of social responsibility of comedians. Do you feel at all that the Lenos and Lettermans of the world, who are hitting more on image things that have, arguably, less of a bearing on our actual political life and our life in the world [regardless of political affiliation] -- does that tie into social responsibility at all, or is that an entirely separate thing?

DGY: The question is, "What kind of a decision-making process about politics should people be engaging in?" And that is a whole other problem, because [in the same 2000 survey] I also looked at what is the first thing that comes to [people's] minds, and can late night comedy affect that? What we call "priming." It might not necessarily change how stupid you think Bush is, but maybe it'll change the fact that when you think "Bush," you'll immediately think, "He's not bright."

CP!: And when you're standing in the voting booth, you're thinking, "That guy's stupid."

DGY: And the question is, does that factor into vote choice? And if this thing is something that's at the top of your head and you're being reminded of all the time, maybe it will play a larger role. I did find -- again, just among those people who are low in political knowledge, that same bottom third -- that they, as they watched more late night comedy, they became increasingly likely to mention Bush's lack of intelligence in an open-ended evaluation of him.

And those people who didn't watch latenight comedy, who also fell into that bottom third of political knowledge, they really didn't have anything to say at all. When you ask, "What do you like least about him?" [they say] "I just don't like him," "He’s a jerk."

But what's amazing is that, the people (in general) who are most likely to discuss Bush's lack of intelligence, when you ask this open-ended question, are people who are politically knowledgeable, and people who are partisans. [People high on partisanship and political knowledge] are kind of elites, generally speaking. They're most informed, people who have a point of view about their party and know more about politics.

So at first you're like, "Is this a good thing or a bad thing, that you take these people who don't know a lot about politics, and all of a sudden, they watch a lot of late night comedy, and then the first thing that they think of when they think of Bush becomes that he's stupid. Well, it seems like maybe that's a bad thing, until you realize the people who are engaging in that kind of judgment -- without the late-night comedy factored in -- are people who are kind of elites. They're the ones who're talking about his lack of intelligence.

CP!: And because of them being in positions of power, they probably dictate a lot of the discourse on these things.

DGY: And they're probably opinion leaders in their own small spheres of influence, too.

CP!: And that all filters down depending on the strength of personality and level of influence, passed down to lower levels on the food chain.

DGY: Right.

CP!: I wonder if that does a disservice. I mean, I laugh just as much as the next person at Bush's misstatements, but I've always felt that anyone who has to speak in public as much as the president does, probably screws up about as often as anyone else does, and really should be given a little slack in that regard.

DGY: And you'll notice, Jon Stewart doesn't really make fun of how dumb Bush is. When [Stewart] was on with Bill O'Reilly, and O'Reilly said, "George Bush isn't stupid." Stewart said, "No, stupid is, 'Oh shit, I just ate soap!'"

[Bush is] not stupid. And yet, if you look at Leno and Letterman jokes, you might think he might eat soap.

So I've tried to explain the differences in the effects of The Daily Show versus Leno and Letterman in terms of its content, by saying that, okay, here's the psychological mechanism that happens in humor, and the reason that these programs probably elicit different levels of influence in different directions is because of the kind of content that is employed. It's not because the psychological mechanism is different.

Trying to understand the logic of what makes something funny is so futile, but I know I'll have a job for the rest of my life! What my [current] work has been trying to do is create a theory that's general enough that it helps explain a lot, but not so general that it loses all of its relevance. Because if a theory explains everything, it's not that interesting.

(For Part 2 of this interview, click here.)