Lizz Winstead, co-creator of and former head writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, spoke at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum about the role of comedy in news coverage on Tuesday. When she asked the student-filled audience if they got their news from The Daily Show or other such parody shows, nods of assent filled the room. Winstead followed the question by referencing a recent study from Fairleigh Dickinson University that found watchers of The Daily Show were the most informed of all television viewers, and the Athenaeum burst into laughter and applause.
“I don’t think we should applaud that,” Winstead said, passing by the audience’s appreciation. “I don’t know how I feel about that.”
In addition to working on The Daily Show, Winstead has previously been a host on Air America Radio.
Winstead’s talk was consistently funny, as could be expected from a Daily Show veteran, but she also analyzed how the U.S. has changed and how it is that “comedy [has become] more trusted than the news.” Winstead was there to make us chuckle, but more importantly, she reminded us that sometimes that isn’t what we need after all.
“It’s great to see young folks who care about what the media is doing,” she said, “or, more importantly, what it isn’t doing.”
According to Winstead, the news media relies on a “full-scale scaring of America, a scaring that continues today … [such that] it became non-news.”
The news media presents the most horrific or startling story to scare the audience, rather than try to capture their interest, she said. Winstead does not see most TV newscasters as journalists, but rather as commentators: ex-politicians, ex-athletes, or other people who, she joked, had apparently been bad at their previous jobs.
Winstead also expressed concern that the media deals with the public’s lack of trust in the news by trying to imitate shows like The Daily Show.
“You know what we don’t need? Funny little bits on the news,” she said. She added that the role of comedians is to challenge the power of the news media, or, in her own words, their “bull.”
She also wants to know when the news media started failing so badly at the task at hand.
“[I] hope that comedy is always a place that can call out hypocrisy and bull … it used to be that media was the watchdog … [whereas] now comedians are the watchdog of the watchdog,” Winstead said.
The role of comedians to make light of current events is an important one, Winstead added, but that’s her job. The traditional media needs to stop trying to be funny and start doing their own jobs instead.