Evidence for the Jon Stewart Hypothesis

The Casey Anthony trials lends evidence to support Jon Stewart's basic hypothesis about the MSM.

Back when Jon Stewart was on Fox News Sunday he said:

‘The bias of the mainstream media is towards sensationalism, conflict and laziness.”

Doug Mataconis’s post that noted Casey Anthony Trial Got More News Coverage Than GOP Candidates reminded me of the above.

I generally share James Joyner’s attitude on these kinds of stories (which is why, like my co-bloggers here at OTB I have not mentioned the trial prior to now).

However, if we think about Stewart’s assertion about the mainstream media and criminal trials like those of Casey Anthony, he see the bias in question in action.

There is little doubt that the death of a small child by itself is sensationalistic.  Throw in a missing persons report, an attractive, partying mother, and goodness knows what other details I am blissfully unaware of and you certainly meet this first criterion.

How about conflict?  Well, by definition, our court system is an adversarial one.  So, conflict’s a go.  Plus you have a number of family members and whatnot to cry on the stand/hurl accusations.  Heck, that’s conflict squared.

And laziness?  What could be easier than airing live footage of a trial and finding a few lawyers to opine on air about the subject?  Further, it isn’t as if a this kind of story requires a lot of audience education.  This strikes me as practically not having to  work (from the MSM’s POV).  It is certainly easier than covering some far flung foreign location or dealing with the complexities of quantitative easing or even dealing with the platforms of the various presidential contenders.

There is also another key element to this MSM bias that Stewart’s formulation does not cover:  viewers tend to like these kinds of stories.  It is a basic market function going on here.

However, in terms of Stewart’s argument, I think we can see the dynamic rather clearly.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Steven,

    Another thought, this case is a classic study in how sensationalistic media coverage of trials leads to a perverted understanding of the criminal justice system.

    One of the reactions I’ve seen on TV from people who claim they were watching the trial is that they can’t understand how the jury reached its decision because they watched the same testimony. Well, leaving aside the idea that being in a courtroom and actually seeing people testify is very different from seeing it on television, I’ll just note that the viewers, unlike the jurors, would watch the testimony and then, when the court was in recess they’d be exposed to endless analysis of what was going on. Obviously their opinions of the testimony are being influenced by the “legal analysts.” This is why we sequester juries in high profile cases.

    It seems to me that this kind of coverage — combined with legal dramas on television that are typically unrealistic — leads people to believe things about the law and the way trials work that aren’t true.

    Could that lead to a decline in confidence in the judicial process? I’ll leave that for others to decide.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    They cover this “story” with no-cost or low-cost talking heads in a studio. Keeping a bureau open in, say, Egypt or Japan, is far more expensive.

  3. Trumwill says:

    Well, next time I hear a conservative (or anyone) suggest that the media is not attracted to sensationalism and conflict, I will definitely point to this story.

  4. ponce says:

    Keeping a bureau open in, say, Egypt or Japan, is far more expensive.

    That’s what BBC News is for.

  5. Janis Gore says:

    Hell, I don’t even watch Jon Stewart.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The bias of the mainstream media is towards sensationalism, conflict and laziness.”

    Ya know guys, you could have stopped at this quote, said not another word, and been perfectly accurate…. but nooooooo, you had to add your own spin… Just like FOX or CNN or ABC…..

    The difference between John Stewart and the rest of us: He cuts thru the bullsh*t and leaves us laughing, we cut thru the bullsh*t and leave every one befuddled. …

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Hell, I don’t even watch Jon Stewart.

    Janis, you should, even if it is only once a week.

  8. Janis Gore says:

    Ok. Which day?

  9. Hey Norm says:

    Janis…he’s most clever on days that end in “y”. But maybe that’s cause those are the days I drink heavily.

  10. Nightrider says:

    @Doug Mataconis: It may be less accurate to say that these trials cause the lack of understanding about our legal system, than to say that public reactions to these trials reflect the lack of understanding that most people would have in any event.

  11. mattb says:


    You beat me to it. The cheapness of this type of news coverage (everything is happening there) is the partner of the laziness.

    Trials are also great because they are so regulated — while surprises happen, they almost always happen within a predictable schedule — meaning that, outside of deliberations, everything can be planned for and there’s little overtime involved on anyone’s part.

  12. Abdul says:
  13. ponce says:

    Like Sarah Palin, Jon Stewart is a card carrying member of the MSM.

    He’s just smart enough to give his viewers what they want.

    Yglesias today:

    This continued to reflect, in my view, the leading failure of the press. It’s not exactly that the man on the street is more substance-oriented than your average political journalist. It’s more that insofar as the man on the street wants to see some diverting entertainment, he’s probably watching a football game or The Real Housewives Of Atlanta. Ordinary people don’t care about politics all that much. But when they do decide to pay attention to politics, it’s because they’re worried about jobs or the environment or energy prices or taxes or something. It’s never because they’re wondering how the president reacted to Steny Hoyer’s remarks about Eric Cantor’s characterization of the Treasury secretary’s statement about the debt ceiling.

  14. Jay Tea says:

    Jon Stewart, by his own admission, is a comedian, not a serious analyst. So I dismiss what he says as a joke. It simplifies things tremendously.

    Someone once suggested watching him with the sound off, just to see how much of his humor is based on making funny faces. It’s really remarkable…


  15. @Jay Tea: Except, of course, that he wasn’t joking. He has been pretty clear about his basic views of the MSM, especially cable news, for some time (remember the Crossfire visit?).

    Beyond that, while the above formulation hardly explains everything, if you apply it to what one sees on the cable news channels, it does a pretty good job of explaining it pretty well.

    The bottom is not who said it, or what their basic profession is, but rather whether the statement is accurate or not.

  16. Jay Tea says:

    Steven, I realize he was being serious. But Stewart’s mastered the art of the “clown nose on/clown nose off” routine. When pressed too far, his defense is he’s a comedian — he’s not expecting to be taken seriously. He shifts in and out of that role as it suits him.

    So I just don’t ever take him seriously. It saves time and energy and effort.

    I find him exceptionally entertaining a lot of the time, but by his own admission he’s not a serious commentator, and I take him at his word.

    In other words, I keep his clown nose on all the time.


  17. mattb says:

    Beyond that, while the above formulation hardly explains everything, if you apply it to what one sees on the cable news channels, it does a pretty good job of explaining it pretty well.

    Actually, after doing a lot of research around US Journalism, Stewart’s model explains a lot of local news coverage (especially TV). Crime news is by far the easiest and cheapest form of coverage.

    BTW, it’s too bad Stewart left *cost* out of his critique as that is a huge factor in all of this — an oft repeated phrase I’ve heard in interviews “I wish we could do more investigative work, but it’s just cost prohibitive.”

  18. ken says:

    With the telephone and the internet investigative journalism has never been cheaper. All a reporter has to do is do a bit of research on the internet then make a bunch of phone calls to guys who know what they are talking about and you have a pretty decent investigative story to tell.

    Instead reporters wait for a ‘spokesman’, any ‘spokesman’ to make a statement and then breathlessly report it as if they have actually worked to get it.

  19. bains says:

    Steven, you are sidestepping the issue just as Stewart did. Wallace asked if he (John) did not view all the primary MSM venues as having just as left a bias as FNC has a right bias. Deftly, John misdirected the question into one of sensationalizing the gripping, and often morbid tales of anguish and depravity. (I’ll note that I share yours and James utter disinterest in a Florida trial).

    To use an analogy, what Stewart did was tantamount to dismissing the favoritism of 3 of 4 umpires at a baseball game because all four chased down a streaker in the outfield. Chasing down the outrageous says nothing of the inherent, and culturally inbred biases so obvious within the preponderance of our national media.

    I’ll also note that those most likely to argue against the MSM’s leftward biases are those that most benefit from maintaining that misconception, e.g. the left. They need to shroud the ideological bent of the MSM to prevent its audience the realization that what is being sold as honest and down the middle social, economic, and political news and news analysis, is in fact agenda driven. By and large, the right knows that biases exist everywhere, and that all sources should not be taken as immutable truth.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    Interesting that the MSM is supposedly so biased towards the left, considering that most of the MSM is owned by corporations…who knew that these entities were so determined to push forth a leftist agenda…