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The Politics of Entertainment

For two weeks in 2007, Stephen Colbert was the most talked-about presidential candidate in America. The comedian/faux-conservative pundit announced his fling with the presidency Oct. 16 on his Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report. "After nearly 15 minutes of soul searching, I heard the call," he said. By Nov. 1—much to the chagrin of his legion of youthful supporters—Colbert’s bid was over, deep-sixed by Democratic party leaders in South Carolina.

Comedy-driven candidacies are nothing new. But the unprecedented influence of Colbert and other entertainers on the political climate in this information age is making it harder to know what to take seriously. It’s also having a huge impact on how teens are being conditioned to interact with our political system.

The 2008 presidential contenders have understood that outlets such as MTV, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and YouTube can be as important to their campaigns as pancake breakfasts and stump speeches. Just ask Bill Clinton, whose landmark saxophone playing on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 energized his drive for the White House. A spot on Saturday Night Live might mean a bump in the polls. Conversely, an embarrassing YouTube clip could require serious damage control.

"Without anyone firing a single shot in anger, politics in turn-of-the-century America has become a mere colony of entertainment," the liberal magazine Mother Jones said in 2000. Those words are even truer today. And by the time 14-year-old High School Musical fans reach voting age, expect the line between politics and entertainment to be even blurrier.

Some people might argue that the age of infotainment isn’t all bad. After all, young adults are paying closer attention to politics now, and pollsters have discovered that more are turning out on election day. Forty-seven percent of Americans ages 18-24 voted in 2004—11 percent higher than in 2000. The challenge is for parents and other civic-minded adults to teach young people how to separate fact and thoughtful dialogue from a really snappy punchline.

The Daily Show website actually encourages lazy fans to forsake traditional voices and media formats in favor of Stewart’s from-the-hip comedy show, noting, "If you’re tired of the stodginess of the evening newscasts, and you can’t bear to sit through the spinmeisters and shills on the 24-hour cable news networks, don’t miss The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the nightly half-hour series unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy."

Politics Can Be a Funny Thing
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with political humor. Satire is at least as old as government itself. Political cartoons predate Uncle Sam and were arguably as influential in kick-starting the Revolutionary War as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Over the past 50 years, however, popular culture has grabbed the baton and sprinted with it, whether in the form of late-night talk show monologues (by everyone from Johnny Carson to Bill Maher), SNL’s "Weekend Update" (memorable anchors have included Chevy Chase, Dennis Miller and Tina Fey) or The Daily Show (with exhaustive election commentary titled Indecision ’08).

In 2004, Jib Jab’s online song-and-dance number "This Land," featuring animated versions of George W. Bush and John Kerry, reportedly drew three times the combined traffic of the candidates’ official sites. The success of that at-times crass parody helped launch the viral video explosion being exploited by today's hopefuls. By late 2007, before a single presidential caucus or primary had been held, YouTube hosted dozens of unorthodox attention-grabbers:

• The Clintons spoofed the final episode of The Sopranos in a 90-second Internet-only clip. Meanwhile, supporters of fellow Democrat Barack Obama created the ultimate anti-Hillary spot, splicing scenes from Apple’s "1984" Macintosh television commercial into one of her speeches.

• Republicans, once wary of viral gimmickry and often accused of being comedically challenged, have gotten into the act, too. Mike Huckabee recruited martial-arts icon Chuck Norris for a popular online ad. In it, Norris solemnly outlines Huckabee’s platform while Huckabee rolls out lines such as, "There’s no chin behind Chuck Norris’ beard—only another fist."

• The Web site Barely Political unleashed the buxom "Obama Girl" on the American public. She declared "I got a crush … on Obama" while parading about in tight T-shirts and bikinis. The clip has been seen by an estimated 100 million people worldwide. "Giuliani Girl," featuring a woman backing former Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani, was unveiled shortly thereafter, and the two proceeded to have a viral video showdown.

Return on Investment
Why has Stephen Colbert become this generation’s Walter Cronkite? The busier and more stressful life gets, the less time and energy young adults are willing to invest in studying heavy issues over which they feel they have little or no control. So they learn about the issues (and get a laugh or two in the process) by gravitating to the lighter side of politics, where entertainers unravel candidates’ carefully spun rhetoric into digestible one-liners. "It says something about what has happened to our news that many of you get your news from The Daily Show or Stephen Colbert," Obama told a group of young voters during a forum on MTV.

He’s right. A 2004 study from the Pew Research Center found that 21 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 got at least part of their regular political education from comedy TV shows. Another 20 percent listed the Internet as a prime influencer. By comparison, newspapers—once the gold standard for disseminating information—were deemed a valuable political tool by just 23 percent of youthful voters. As that medium continues to lose ground, more 18-year-olds are learning about the presidential race from The Daily Show than from the daily paper. And many observers believe conventional television news is also swiftly losing relevance.

"While the network news broadcasts are sustained by the consumers of denture cream, adult diapers and pharmacological marital aides," wrote Jonah Goldberg of the Los Angeles Times, "it’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report that have a grip on the hip, iPhone crowd. And plenty of those younger viewers seem to believe that they can deduce what’s going on in the real world from jokes on a fake newscast. It’s no longer funny because it’s true. It’s true because it’s funny."

Cast a Vote for Change
Thomas Jefferson said, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." A profound statement. That’s why it’s critical that parents—in addition to teaching their children how to pray, study and floss—educate them on how to stay on top of things in the political arena. Here are a few ways families can get started:

Set an example. Make sure you are informed about current events, including what today’s crop of candidates thinks about important issues. If children are raised in politically savvy homes, chances are they’ll retain those lessons later on.

Utilize multiple news sources. Subscribe to a daily paper. Read news magazines. Surf solid, reputable news sites for information, including citizenlink.com. And don’t be intimidated by C-SPAN. Media consumers worried about bias can combat that danger through both education and diversification. The more you and your children know, the less likely you will be duped by bias … or by the candidates themselves.

Distinguish between news and entertainment. Shows such as The Daily Show can be quite persuasive, and often have their own built-in worldview that may or may not jibe with what you’re attempting to teach at home.

Encourage children to be cautious (but not dismissive) of blogs. Many blogs are clever and fun to read but don’t rigorously fact-check, which means information presented as truth is sometimes nothing more than opinion or rumor.

Encourage discussion. Talk about the issues together. Study the nominees and their running mates. Your teen may not fall into lockstep with your views or support your candidate, but he or she will still be interested in and influenced by your opinions and approach to the process.

Discussion, far more than passive inculcation, encourages youth to be civically engaged. Just as Proverbs 27:17 notes that "as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another," debate encourages participants to shape and hone their own thoughts, ideas and opinions. And it gives young people the tools they’ll need to make their own political decisions as adults.

Published January 2008