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Frame Analysis of a Persuasive Artifact: Jon Stewart

Political satire has achieved high popularity in the United States, heavily influencing American views. The face of political satire today is undoubtedly Jon Stewart. Stewart has become one of the most influential figures in political news since joining “The Daily Show” as anchor in 1999. Surveys even indicate that most men and women under the age of 35 use the Comedy Central show as their primary source of TV news. The show is a critical success as well, collecting 50 Emmy nominations and 19 wins (Jon, n.d.). Each show involves Jon Stewart addressing current political/social issues. Topics can differ each night, but Stewart’s impact on the American viewers is consistent.

During the show’s November 17, 2014 episode, Stewart confronted Obama’s immigration reform tactics in a segment called “Guardian of the Amnesty.” President Obama’s plans for executive action to initiate change and the subsequent Republican reactions were discussed (Llaoz, 2014). The relevance and importance of the issue make Stewart’s segment worth analyzing. Due to the show’s influence, an important question arises. How is Jon Stewart’s framework of the topic persuasive to his audience?

Frame is an essential concept in communication and persuasion, studied and discussed extensively by linguist George Lakoff. Lakoff addresses the subject in his 2004 book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” The central notion of framing is that language carries and evokes certain ideas. Every word or phrase conveys a concept in the mind of a speaker and listener. “Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview,” states Lakoff (2004, pp. 3-4). This is precisely why framing is so important in persuasion. A speaker who can successfully bring an audience into his or her view of a subject will be extremely persuasive. The speaker wants his or her listeners to evoke a certain frame, therefore certain ideas and images. Establishing a successful frame is even more powerful than the presentation of facts. Lakoff writes, “People think in frames… To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off” (Lakoff, 2004, pp. 17). As a result, some speakers focus solely on framing and avoid facticity. While this may not always be ethical persuasion, the tactic can be very effective.

Jon Stewart certainly understands the importance of framing in politics, even in satire. Mocking the framing tactics used by various politicians is not uncommon for the comedian, but Stewart uses his own form of framing on his show. While Stewart spends a fair amount of time criticizing the Democrats and liberals, he is certainly one himself. His personal political views, as well as the show’s and station’s, result in a majority of “The Daily Show” faulting conservative politicians and ideals. Stewart deploys frames that often evoke the idea of the liberal view as “right” and the conservative view as “wrong.” His “Guardian of the Amnesty” segment from November 17 is a perfect example. Framing the conservative viewpoint as bad is specifically evident.

Stewart spends only the first couple minutes of about a nine-minute monologue addressing President Obama’s plan to use executive action for immigration reform. Here he merely brings up the issue while introducing some humor. “Illegal immigration – years of inconsistent policy enforcement,” began Stewart, suggesting validity in the effort to bring change (Llaoz, 2014). The anchor briefly discusses Obama’s increased tendency to use executive action and his plan for reform. He presents several jokes, but distributes no real criticism. While no direct praise is offered either, Stewart’s silence on the matter evokes a positive frame for the Democratic leader. “The Daily Show” is a satirical show that pokes fun at every topic discussed. Any portion of an issue just being reported means the next portion is what Stewart intends to mock. Stewart does frequently offer direct verbal approval, but avoiding insults on the program is also suggestive that an individual/group is in the right or doing nothing wrong. Because Obama is not the item being ridiculed, he is perceived as “right” by the majority of viewers.

After introducing the subject, Jon Stewart spends the better part of his talk on the Republican response to the president. Various news clips are shown on conservatives, including John Boehner, Mitt Romney, other Republican politicians, and numerous Fox News anchors. All clips contain these individuals condemning the president’s actions as immoral and/or unconstitutional. Stewart takes the opportunity at the conclusion of each clip to belittle the speaker with humor, but not necessarily the conservative ideas. This is an important fact analyzed later in this paper. The near six minutes spent on ridiculing the Right creates another frame. Audience members now believe opposition to the president, namely conservatives, is “wrong.” Not only do the Republicans’ ideas contradict what Stewart previously framed as “right,” but they are displayed as silly and unpopular.

Hugh Rank’s model of persuasion is an excellent tool in analyzing “The Daily Show’s” persuasive strategies. Intensifying the good of one side’s argument and/or the bad of the other’s is one of two ways to persuade. One of the intensifying methods, association, is used early in the monologue to intensify the good of the president’s argument. Association involves linking a positive idea to one’s own device (Jones, 2014). Stewart’s early comment suggests Obama’s executive action can fix a long-time broken system. Also, the jokes told about Obama are not scornful, but rather portray him as “cool.” The early portion of the segment associates the president’s plan with ideas of necessity and popularity, enforcing the frame that Obama’s side is “right.”

Rank’s other persuasive method includes downplaying the other’s good parts of an argument and one’s own bad. Two downplaying methods, omission and diversion, are both present in the speech. Omission is leaving out information about one or both sides, or utilizing partial truths (Jones, 2014). Stewart fails to address the details and/or negative impact of Obama’s immigration reform plan. Because the central topic is the legitimacy of the president’s plan, these are extremely important items left undiscussed. The uses of diversion are numerous. Diversion includes shifting attention to bogus issues (Jones, 2014). As indicated earlier, Jon Stewart focuses on deriding the conservative speakers rather than content. Examples include mocking John Boehner taking a long pause while speaking, Mitt Romney’s failure to win the presidency in 2012, and one Fox News anchor holding up a lighter to a copy of the Constitution. Stewart generated laughs from his audience, but attacked completely irrelevant issues. Boehner’s speaking skills, Romney’s past campaign, and one television news anchor’s idiocy have nothing to do with President Obama using executive action to reform immigration policy. Effective use of omission and diversion assist in building the frame of Republicans as “wrong.”

Perhaps the biggest reason Stewart enforces these frames is his understanding of his audience. The TV anchor shares many of the stances of most his viewers, but he is paid to entertain and convince his listeners. Many fans of “The Daily Show” are young and/or liberal-leaning. Such an audience wants confirmation on their views as being popular and correct. Jon Stewart provides this service with the use of his “right vs wrong” frame. Regarding immigration reform, most liberals favor the ideas of President Obama. Democrats try to build a positive relationship with the immigrant community by easing the acquisition of citizenship. “Guardian of the Amnesty” promotes the goals as positive, confronts opposition as negative, and reiterates that frame to millions of viewers. Furthermore, Stewart is likely appealing to millions of families in the United States that contain or know illegal immigrants.

Framing the two sides as “right” and “wrong” is incredibly effective given the audience of “The Daily Show.” Constant humor provides entertainment, but more importantly an immense shield from ridicule. However, the frame is very constricted when analyzed. Use of intensifying and downplaying has been discussed. Each serves an important role in displaying the good and bad of each side in different degrees. The picture Stewart draws is not necessarily accurate. Additionally, he paints each political side, conservatives especially, with a broad brush. The comedian almost assumes Barrack Obama speaks on behalf of all liberals. Because the opposition to the president is conservatives/Republicans, all liberals/Democrats must be on the side of the president. Jon Stewart fails to account for any members of the Left who oppose immigration reform or executive action. Likewise, the segment asserts that all conservatives/Republicans oppose the president’s plan for reform and use of executive action. Many may indeed fall into such a category, but variations are possible. Members on the Right may want reform but are against executive action, while others oppose new immigration laws but are fine with executive action usage. Some may support the president entirely. Moderates, who are likely to possess varying views on the matter, are completely ignored. This is perhaps the biggest flaw in Stewart’s right vs. wrong frame. Such a framework is indicative that there is a right and wrong viewpoint on every topic. While this can be persuasive to an audience, no variations in beliefs are viewed as right or even acceptable. An individual is simply either right or wrong in every matter, with the “right” almost always existent on the Left.

The segment is persuasive, like most of Jon Stewart’s works. Changing the framework to a broader one might be more accurate, but may diminish its persuasiveness. Stewart wants to entertain and promote a certain message. Deploying a more inclusive framework likely hurts “Guardian of the Amnesty’s” entertainment, comedic, and persuasive factors. The framework is successful given what Stewart wants to accomplish. One item Stewart ignores that could have assisted his “right vs wrong” frame is past Republican presidential executive action. Displaying clips of conservative leaders and reporters insulting Obama’s tactics and following up with examples of the same thing from past presidents further imposes his frame. Such a method represents the conservatives as hypocritical and once again in the “wrong.” Overall though, Stewart applies a very persuasive framework on the issue.

Jon Stewart is a genius. His persuasive ability in the world of politics during the past fifteen years is matched by very few. He understands that younger Americans find politics uninteresting and one of the few ways to reach them is through humor. Audiences want a story; they want to be entertained. “The Daily Show” is one of the rare mediums to provide this in politics. This grants anchor Jon Stewart a tremendous influence over American voters. He uses his position to promote an overall liberal message. “Guardian of the Amnesty” last month showcases this fact. Whether or not one agrees with his message or the strategies he uses, few can deny that Jon Stewart knows how to persuade.

Works Cited

Jon Stewart – Bio. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://thedailyshow.cc.com/news-team/jon-stewart

Jones, D. (Director) (2014, December 3). Rank’s Model of Persuasion. Lecture conducted from Trine University, Angola.

Lakoff, G. (2004, September). Framing 101: How to Take Back Public Discourse. In Don’t Think of an Elephant! (pp. 3-4, 17). White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Pub.

Llaoz, A. (2014, November 17). Jon Stewart – Guardians Of The Amnesty – Obama Immigration “Emperor” Flip-Flop. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kicse1K_8kg