Tucked away in the University Student Union is a relatively small theater; something you would watch an outdated movie in. There you will find a couple hundred CSUN students trying to stay awake during a session of introductory political science. Eyelids are getting heavy and thumbs are busy texting away until the professor announces he’s going to show a clip of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” to illustrate how bureaucratic agencies function.
Suddenly, heads perk up and backs straighten as the same drowsy students give their attention to the screen. A diminutive man with salt-and-pepper hair and a cynical smile is lampooning the government and getting his point across. Scattered laughter is heard throughout the classroom as students are no longer fighting sleep.
“It gets students listening,” said freshman history major Allan Gomez.
Even though he watched a dated clip of ” The Daily Show” in Assistant Professor Martin Saiz’s American political institutions course last semester, Gomez said it was still relevant. “It made it easier for me to understand the concepts,” he said of the clip, which showed congressional oversight of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina.
“The Daily Show” has been shown in this room by three political science professors teaching different sections of 155, in an effort to liven up their lectures and hopefully teach students a thing or two about the U.S. government.
Saiz shares clips he obtains with Assistant Professors Tom Hogen-esch and Lawrence Becker. He captures them from previously recorded programs with a media center computer, edits them to his liking, then hands them down to fellow professors.
Saiz, who has used clips of “The Daily Show” in his classes since 2005, said they are useful in getting students’ attention in a room where “the screen dominates and the professor is a small feature.”
“That classroom is a difficult environment to engage students in,” agreed Becker, who tells Saiz when there is a worthwhile clip to capture. “It is easy to dose off and tune out.”
Becker said the clips are chosen with a purpose in mind and are not just funny tidbits. “They are related to the point I am making in the class,” he said. “If I show Jon Stewart saying it, it gives me credibility and shows that I’m not making things up.”
“I use it for pedagogical reasons,” commented Saiz, adding that college students have a short attention span that usually gets shorter as the class progresses. He sees the clips as breaking up the tension of the class. Something that students, like Aaron Wright, appreciate.
“(The show) takes the serious side away from the news,” said the freshman biology major who is also in one of Saiz’s political science courses this semester. “It is not as serious, but you still get the feel for news. You can get the comic relief and laugh while learning information that goes on in the world.”
POLS 155 is a Title 5 required course for lower division students, and Becker understands that most of the students are taking it because they have to, not because they are interested in the subject.
For this reason, Becker uses clips from “The Daily Show” in order to spark political interest in his students. “It gets them to see that politics can be fun, and in that sense, it’s kind of a trick.”
Although “The Daily Show” is a staple for “fake news” it has gained a certain aura of political and even educational clout since its debut in 1999, and has somehow managed to get inside a CSUN classroom.
The segments and correspondents are over the top and ridiculous, yet the satirical angle used to present the top news stories resonates with its predominately young and educated audience.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the audience of the award-winning show and its spin-off “The Colbert Report” is 31 percent of college graduates and 26 percent of viewers between the ages of 18 and 29.
Also, 54 percent of these shows’ viewers compose a high knowledge group, debunking Bill O’Reilly’s statement in 2004, calling “The Daily Show’s” viewers “stoned slackers” and “dopey kids.”
“‘The Daily Show’ is the place where the politically informed go for entertainment,” said Becker, who watches the show on a regular basis. He also incorporates clips from the show in his upper division courses about the presidency and the legislative process, where he said a majority of his students follow the show.
Despite the fact that the show prides itself on lacking credibility-the show’s motto being “One anchor, five correspondents, zero credibility”-it’s garnered enough political clout to have prominent people as guests; they range from pop-culture icons to presidential candidates and foreign leaders.
“Stewart has to have asked himself, ‘Why is Barack Obama coming on my show?'” said Becker, who disagrees with the notion that the show has no credibility. “These important figures feel the need to go on his show and answer his questions because something real is at stake, and because lots of people watch, pay attention and care about what he has to say.”
Becker believes Stewart not only has as much knowledge as professional news anchors, but also has an advantage over mainstream media players. “He is able to ask penetrating and controversial questions that others can’t ask because they are afraid of offending their demographic,” Becker said.
Aside from being comical, “The Daily Show” is also viewed by young people in order to become aware of certain issues. According to a survey conducted in 2004 by Pew Research Center, 21 percent of Americans under the age of 30 said they regularly got their election news from comedy shows like “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live.”
Becker said these types of shows are more effective in appealing to younger audiences because they speak the same language.
“(They) connect with a demographic that has traditionally been unattached to politics,” he said. “Watching ‘The Daily Show’ is like taking sweet tasting medicine. . . it is a more palatable way of getting information.”
In fact “The Daily Show” can be more effective in getting the message across than traditional media outlets such as venerable newspapers or network news.
“‘The New York Times’ isn’t entertaining unless you’re a government and politics junky,” said Becker.
Similarly, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are effective in bringing to light the absurdity of the mainstream media and its lack of substance, said Becker. “Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do a good job at critiquing the media and the way politics and government are covered,” he said.
A problem critics have with “The Daily Show” is its tendency to lean toward the left. This is reflected by a Pew Research study: 14 percent of the shows viewers identify themselves as being liberal, while only 3 percent are conservative.
“‘The Daily Show’ has no pretense of objectivity and the people who tune in know it,” said Becker, before adding that objectivity in media does not exist.
“The Daily Show” is one of many programs affected by the recent writers strike, leading Stewart to change the name from “The” to “A” because he considers it a collaboration.
Currently, the show is focusing on the presidential election hoopla with “Indecision 2008,” usually showing clips of election coverage from larger cable news networks, like CNN and Fox News.
“A lot of it is inherently funny,” said Saiz. “It doesn’t take a writing staff to extenuate the humor.” He said “The Daily Show” probably uses interns to compile funny clips of media foils, similar to the way he does it, except he doesn’t have interns. “It takes a lot of TV watching and note taking,” said Saiz, who clai
ms to have more than 1,300 clips. “I’ll never enjoy TV the same way again.”
Stewart’s contract was renewed last year and he will be hosting “The Daily Show” through 2010, demonstrating that he is not only gaining iconic stature now, but that he will be playing a major role in pop-culture for years to come.
“I deal with students who don’t care about politics, but it’s rare when I come across a student who hasn’t heard of Jon Stewart,” said Becker. “Everyone knows who he is, regardless if they watch the show or not.”
“The show will go on as long as he wants it to,” he concluded. “The nice thing about politics is that it will always provide him with new material.” In this case, Becker will also have plenty of material to work with for his classes.