Professor discusses politics and the media

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Photographer’s Morgan Brownell/THE REVIEW
Communications professor Paul Brewer discusses the educational value disguised in late-night comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show.”.


On Wednesday night, an unexpected sound came from Smith 120 — laughter. An amused crowd of students and residents could hardly contain their chuckling as a segment from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” played from the overhead projector.

Paul Brewer, a professor of communications, political science and international relations, grinned from the podium. He then went on to reveal that this kind of light-hearted comedy can create a serious impact in the world of politics.

“There is good evidence that learning does happen while watching [late-night] comedy shows,” Brewer said.

He noted that shows like “The Daily Show” and “Hannity” can influence viewers’ perception of a candidate.

“People don’t like voting for losers,” Brewer said. “If they don’t think a candidate has a chance of winning, they won’t vote for them.”

In addition to cracking jokes about presidential candidates, Brewer explained late night comedy can also educate viewers on political issues. Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” had an extended segment on super PACs where he still maintained a level of humor, but also subtly informed the public about what PACs were and how they affect politics.

Brewer also noted that late-night comedians can take on the role of political advocate, but it has to be kept to a minimum. He compared late-night comedians to “court-jesters” who can say what others cannot get away with.

“Too much advocacy, however, can take away from the comedy,” he said.

The lack of advocacy can also be seen as a potential concern. Brewer referenced a Pew Research Center survey that revealed of those who watched TV for political coverage, 25 percent relied exclusively on late-night talk shows. He admitted that while “people can learn from late-night [television]” this does not mean it is a reliable source for any and all information pertaining to politics.

After showing a “Saturday Night Live” skit about the 2016 democratic debates, Brewer addressed the fact that late-night TV hosts tend to focus more on presidential nominees than any other politicians. Their shows also focus primarily on personality and not ideology.

He compared this to how late-night comedians act when they actually bring the candidates on air. Brewer said they tend to be milder and throw “softball” questions instead of making their guest address “hardball” issues. He also said that the appearances are usually to improve a politician’s likability, not discuss policies.

The lecture was brought to a close with a Q&A, where Brewer answered questions related to manipulation of the media, media framing and the backlash late-night comedy faces.

On Oct. 12, Jennifer Lambe, the second speaker of the political communication lecture series, will discuss the topic of hate speech during the 2016 election.

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