Politics after dark

Do late-night talk show monologues influence elections? A condescending media has decided that they do.

Published September 25, 2000 8:55PM (EDT)

How dimwitted does the press think voters are? So dim that they rely on late-night comedians to figure out which presidential candidate to vote for. That's why the media has been falling over itself dubbing the nation's monologue masters the new face of political punditry.

Take a step back though, and the notion is not only insulting, it's inaccurate. There's simply no proof that Americans vote based on jokes that Jay Leno or David Letterman tell. Citizens, it seems obvious, know the difference between entertainment and politics. The press, however, has become convinced the two have morphed into one.

The media's condescending conventional wisdom is simple: If late-night comics relentlessly bash or belittle a candidate, that could hurt on Election Day because Americans, let's face it, are overly impressed by celebrities, and more apt to watch comedians than evening news anchors.

The theory has been celebrated for months and was hyped yet again in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine cover story by writer Marshall Sella. Meanwhile, each Friday night during the campaign "CBS Evening News" runs monologue clips from the previous week, in search of "possibly significant" political contributions, according to anchor Dan Rather. And a recent look at political humor on "Nightline" insisted jokes can "make or break a candidate's reputation."

As CNN's Wolf Blitzer told the New York Times, "There's no doubt that all this comedy has an impact. Elections are won and lost on public perception in that kind of popular culture."

As a linchpin for its argument, Sella's article trotted out a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and Press which showed that "47 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 often gleaned information about the presidential campaign from late-night comedy shows."

Three problems: First of all, what does "often gleaned information" actually mean, and how often did it occur? Once a week? Twice a year? Second, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 have become among the least likely to vote in recent presidential elections. But third, and most importantly, just because voters "gleaned information about the presidential campaign from late-night comedy shows" doesn't mean the punch lines they laughed at affected their final vote.

Because if they did, Dan Quayle, the supposed under-qualified dunce, never would have been elected vice president, Bill Clinton the dope-smoking draft dodger never would have been elected president twice, nor would Clinton the intern-hound president have survived impeachment. Both Quayle and Clinton were buried beneath an avalanche of late-night cheap shots.

More recently -- if monologues really mattered -- Al Gore the heartless drone wouldn't have jump-started his campaign in August, and George W. Bush, the bumbling lightweight, wouldn't be running neck-and-neck with the drone six weeks before Election Day.

Instead, it's clear the ebb and flow of the current presidential race has more to do with the candidates' message, character and competence, than with quips told after most Americans go to bed.

Yes, the rise of political comedy makes for an interesting story. And the now-common ritual of candidates making the late-night network rounds to prove they are ordinary folks is a real cultural phenomena. But dressing the story up for more than what it is, by suggesting jokes tilt elections, is both silly and misleading.

For instance, the Times' nine-page magazine story opened with an anecdote that tried to illustrate how influential programs like Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" are. It centered on a college junior who finds CNN coverage "boring" but who loves "The Daily Show" and was struck by a skit the show did on Bush's inability to pronounce the word "subliminal." Said the student of Bush: "He's an ignorant mouthpiece. You're always waiting for him to slip up."

A Bush vote lost to "The Daily Show"? No. According to the reporter, the sketch merely "reinforced" the student's view of the Texas governor.

To their credit, comedy writers often downplay their influence, insisting they're simply creating jokes, not determining elections. Yet the press remains fascinated by what the late-night guys say, constantly checking monologues and using joke references in news reports as proof that a political trend is afoot. Perhaps the only trend afoot may be that TV writers are busy making a living. Nothing more, nothing less.

As Letterman recently told partner Paul Shaffer after he jokingly accused the host of being a Democrat: "No, no -- we're right down the middle, my friend. Either side, we just don't care." In other words, he's a TV talk show host just doing his job.

So why do journalists take their cracks so seriously? Maybe they're the ones overly impressed by celebrities.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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