I am scheduled to be on the DAILY SHOW with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central this Thursday (May 8) to talk about political blogging and my book, BLOGWARS. Everyone’s first piece of advice for me about being a good guest: Don’t try to be funny. I think I can manage that…

The Daily Show has become an institution of American politics very much linked to a culture where people–especially younger voters–seek out political information from non-traditional sources. [A KU student (Nathan Rodriguez) in our school’s master’s program is writing his thesis on the show, to some extent based on his time as an intern.] The show is part of the political culture it satirizes and, in some cases, influences it. The show is considered a source of information, an explainer of politics, and of course a “speaker” of (funny) truth to power.

TDS’s effects are hard to quantify: Think in terms of Saturday Night Live‘s “effect” on the Clinton-Obama race! However, there is a small but growing area of research that looks at its role in politics and political socialization. A 2004 Annenberg Election Survey found that TDS viewers have “higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers—even when education, party identification, following politics, watching cable news, receiving campaign information online, age, and gender are taken into consideration.”

Jon Stewart was rated the fourth “most admired journalist in America” in a 2007 survey by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Another Pew study found that regular viewers of The Daily Show and its sister Colbert Report had among highest levels of knowledge about news and public affairs among any group of new consumers.

Other research is finding that the show helps explain politics to people who may not know much about politics. Think infotainment with an educational component.

Because I’m a political historian I like to find parallels between present and past. Jon Stewart in some ways is performing a very old political function–that of the court jester.

Today, we think of jesters as smart-alecks in dangling-bell hats cracking jokes at Renaissance fairs; but the post of jester at a noble household or government court was long considered a crucial one for good government. The court jester had many names throughout history, but the job profile goes back at least several thousand years. The first century CE Roman statesman, philosopher and writer Seneca tells us that in households of means there would be a slave whose special task it was to taunt and critique his masters and generally be saucy and insolent to the wealthy and powerful.

In the Middle Ages, nobles—and indeed the king himself—employed a jester, or fool. He would have an uncertain and largely uncensored place at the banquet table, in meeting rooms, and in the halls of the court. He could interrupt great counselors of state, making piquant or provoking comments, pointing out fallacies in arguments, reporting his own contrarian observations from experience outside the court, and generally speak wry truth to overstuffed power. The ideal fool is best drawn in literature by Sir Walter Scott in his medieval novel Ivanhoe: Wamba, son of Witless, is an equal opportunity infuriator to prince, baron, and banker.

The king could also trust the fool not to be a sycophantic yes-man, and it was the duty of the same to deliver bad news. There is a famous case drawn from the Hundred Years War, when England had defeated France in a great naval battle. The nobles of France were afraid to report the truth to their king, so they incited the court fool, who announced to his ruler that the English sailors were great cowards because they refused to swim in the ocean like the brave French seamen.

I realize that the role of the jesters and saucy slaves has been romanticized: They probably did not have much real power. But I have to think that their influence was also one that few political leaders wanted to admit to.

The Daily Show is part of the great modern sweep of interactive media, like blogs, but it has some deep roots.

Follow-up thought and clarification:

Wouldn’t we have better government today if we had an official White House Jester? (Who, like Supreme Court Justices, could not be fired). Mr. Stewart, will you run? You get my vote.

Originally posted May 8, 2008 at PolicyByBlog

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