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Smart Satire

The Pew Research Center published an intriguing report about public knowledge of current affairs a few days ago. The overall results aren't that surprising - Americans don't know very much about current events. But there are a few things about this report I find especially interesting. Asking who the public knows, Pew came out with the following results:


Not so surprising that Arnold Schwarzenegger (being a former movie star) and Hilary Clinton (getting more media attention than just about anyone in politics) are widely known. What I think is problematic is that less than half of Americans know who Nancy Pelosi, Scooter Libby, and Robert Gates is. Why is this an issue? Because in order to know who Arnold or Hilary is you just have to turn the TV on once in a while or glance at the tabloids at the grocery store. But in order to know Pelosi, Libby, or Gates, you have to make at least some effort to follow news and current events. Also surprising... only 69% of Americans can name the Vice President of the United States when asked... wow thats sad.

The Pew study also looked at how aware people are based on their source of news:


Why is it that regular viewers of the Daily Show and Colbert Report are more aware than CNN or Fox News viewers? One possible explanation is that the comedy shows attract an intelligent audience. After all, these shows would be boring and not funny at all if you didn't understand the satire; but I happen to believe that if you understand the comedy on these shows you are also likely to watch the news or read the paper. A second explanation is that Americans respond better to entertainment than to dry newscasters; I think this is wrong because CNN and Fox News have become sources of entertainment, with the flashy graphics and "fun" stories. Plus that doesn't explain why viewers of News Hour with Jim Lehrer (probably the driest news show on TV) are almost as aware as the Comedy Central viewers. A third explanation, and the one that I think is true, is that the Daily Show and Colbert Report actually report more news than CNN and Fox News. In an ironic twist, channels that call themselves "news stations" actually provide entertainment by reporting some news, whereas the "comedy/satire shows" actually report news in a comedic sense. The distinction may be difficult to see, but I think it says a lot about the problem with Cable TV news in America today. The next time you turn on CNN or Fox News think about what they are telling you. Are you learning about the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq or the identity of Anna Nicole Smith's father? If you watch CNN or Fox, it is likely to be the latter.

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