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News on 'The Daily Show'? You're joking

March 02, 2004|David Bauder | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather ... and Jon Stewart?

Readers over 30 might scoff at Stewart's inclusion, assuming they know who he is. For many under 30, the host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" is an important news source.

A poll released this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21% of people ages 18 to 29 cited "The Daily Show" and "Saturday Night Live" as sources of presidential campaign news.

By comparison, 23% of the young people mentioned ABC, CBS or NBC's nightly news broadcasts as a source.

More startling is the change from four years ago, when Pew found only 9% of young people citing the comedy shows and 39% the network news.

The people at "The Daily Show" ridicule the idea of people looking to their show as a primary news source.

"A lot of them are probably high," Stewart cracked.

Think again.

Conversations with nine people, ages 19 to 26, waiting to see a taping of "The Daily Show" last week revealed two who admitted they learned much about the news from the program.

None said they regularly watched the network evening news shows.

"A lot of those shows focus on topics that have absolutely nothing to do with me, like old people's health care," said Michelle Cohen, a 20-year-old New Yorker.

"The Daily Show" reached a ratings milestone during the two weeks of the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and State of the Union address. For the first time, Stewart's show had more male viewers ages 18 to 34 than any of the network evening news shows.

Stewart's success at skewering news people, not just newsmakers, has particularly scored with his audience.

"They poke fun at how cheesy the regular news shows are, and somebody needs to do that," said Joe Van Vleet, a 25-year-old Californian attending college in New York City.

Nicole Vernon, a 24-year-old bartender from New York City, said she finds much of television news "silly." Stewart, she said, "keeps it very truthful and straightforward."

Hold on there, said Ben Karlin, the show's executive producer. A "Daily Show" viewer who doesn't supplement it with real news isn't very well informed, he said. Pew confirmed that; its survey showed that people who learned news from the comedy shows were less likely to know facts of the campaign.

Steve Capus, "NBC Nightly News" executive producer, said he had a sense that more young viewers were watching right after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Now, he's not so sure. The challenge is to get young viewers more consistently, not simply when there are monumental stories, he said.

Stewart and the evening news anchors essentially have the same goal: to take the daily flood of news and distill it for a viewer. Brokaw does it seriously, Stewart looks for laughs.

Which one is a 21-year-old most likely to watch?

In Capus' Rockefeller Center office, the "Nightly News" staff often gathers after its morning news meeting to watch the 10 a.m. rerun of the previous night's "The Daily Show."

Stewart, in turn, knows their world intimately. In conversation, he drops the name of "The Note," ABC News' website for political junkies.

NBC invited Stewart to give commentary after President Bush's State of the Union address in January. CBS' evening news ran a weekly segment during the 2000 campaign on what comedians were saying, and it's returning this year.

The danger, one Capus and others readily recognize, lies in network news programs that overreact to the comedy shows' growing influence by obviously groping for ways to connect with young people.

Stewart knows when he sees a newsmagazine correspondent in a leather jacket standing on a dark street to introduce a story about washing machines that he has a joke that needs no punch line.

"I shudder to think of Dan Rather up there trying to riff like Jon Stewart," said Rob Vincent, 26, an Oklahoma City native attending law school in New York. "That seems a little scary to me."

His friend, 25-year-old law student Jason Rogers of Phoenix, agreed.

"It would alienate their core audience, which is my parents and grandparents," he said.

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