Dannagal Goldthwaite Young

After Charlie Hebdo: Why the Efforts of Extreme Fundamentalists Are Futile

The fatal shootings at the headquarters of the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, make one thing very clear: Extreme fundamentalists are desperate to control our information environment. In today’s digital world, these efforts will only prove to be futile.

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No Laughing Matter

As you listen to journalists discuss the importance of late-night comedy programs, you would almost think Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather were in danger of being replaced by Leno, Letterman and Stewart.

"Scoff if you must, but the musings of Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien may have as much to do with shaping the candidates' public personas as a ton of newspaper stories, magazine features and cable arguments," writes the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. In 2000, Wolf Blitzer argued that there was "no doubt that all this comedy has an impact ... Elections are won and lost on public perceptions in that kind of popular culture." Entertainment Weekly described Jon Stewart as "a real world political agenda-setter" who would "help shape the young-adult ethos in a key election year."

But the people who actually produce the late-night shows aren't buying it. "The idea that somehow kids get their news from late-night television comedy is absurd," Jon Stewart told an audience of student journalists on a trip to the College of William and Mary in late 2002. Leno has argued that his jokes don't influence public opinion, but "reinforce what people already believe." Letterman told Al Gore's class at Columbia that he guessed that "very few votes were cast based on a joke that either [he] or Jay Leno made."

I recently made a trip to New York to interview The Daily Show's executive producer, Ben Karlin, and co-executive producer, Stewart Bailey. I asked Karlin about that old "party line," the one where they claim they can't influence public opinion because viewers need to have certain beliefs and knowledge to get the jokes in the first place.

After some nudging, Karlin conceded that the Daily Show might be a part of the larger information environment. "The whole thing about people getting their news and information from shows like ours is probably a smaller part of a larger trend of the fracturing of information," he explained, "In a small way, yeah, people do pick up a nugget of information -- in the same way that I'll read four or five newspapers a day and have CNN on and I won't necessarily know where I got a certain piece of information from. I understand that we're part of that information flow, but it's really hard to isolate that thing and say, 'OK, well here's the impact of that one thing.'"

Yet, Karlin maintained that shows like his do not influence public opinion. "The ability that we have to actually change people's minds on an issue or challenge conventional wisdom or public perception," he said, "I believe is virtually nonexistent."

So who's right here? Are late-night jokes merely a thermometer of public opinion or are they teaching people about the campaign and influencing public opinion in the process?

Don't You Know Anything?

Young people do report learning campaign information from these shows. The Pew Center for the People and the Press' latest report on the subject indicates that 21 percent of 18-29 year-olds report learning regularly about the campaign from comedy programs like Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show, compared to 6 percent of 30-49 year-olds and only 3 percent of people over 49. Meanwhile, 13 percent of 18-29 year-olds report learning regularly about the campaign from late-night shows like Leno and Letterman, compared to 7 percent of 30-49 year olds and 8 percent of people over 49. Granted, these results tell us only that young people thinkthey're learning something -- whether they really are is another question.

It is plausible that for people who don't know a lot about politics and don't watch the news, these shows could serve as an information surrogate. While monologue jokes do require people to know something, they don't require people to know all that much. Consider, for example, the following joke told by Jay Leno on Apr. 2:

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