Dec. 27, 2010 -- Jon Stewart: modern day Murrow or schizophrenic satirist?
That question (or something like it) is on the minds of many people after a New York Times article published today likened the "Daily Show" host to advocate newsmen of another era, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
On Dec. 16, Stewart interviewed a panel of 9/11 first responders suffering from the effects of the disaster; last week, the House and Senate passed a bill to funnel federal funds for the health care of 9/11 responders become law. In 1968, Cronkite spoke out about the stalemate in the Vietnam War; a month later, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. In 1954, Murrow criticized the "Red Scare" tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy; thereafter, McCarthy's popularity and influence rapidly declined.
For some, the comparison between the Comedy Central host and the television news giants seems obvious.
"I think it's incredibly apt," said Rachel Sklar, editor-at-large of the blog Mediaite. "There's no question that Jon Stewart has used his platform to advance, strongly, what he thinks is right."
For others, it's hopelessly flawed.
"It is childish, it is garbage, it is ignorant garbage," said Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. "[Stewart] is not a news person. He's a satirist and when he chooses to be blunt, he has the luxury of being blunt."
In Gitlin's view, Cronkite ("the straightest of straight reporters") and Murrow stepped up for their respective causes "very late," and affirmed already existing public opinions. Beyond that, they played a role in society that cannot be filled in the current era of DVR and Dish and blogs and Twitter and insert-name-of-latest-must-have-gadget-here. Then, there were three channels. Now, there are thousands. (Just try to count the number of talking heads on the air at any given moment.)
Stewart has cut through the noise with a signature mix of satire and seriousness. One night he has Paul Rudd talking about his latest rom-com, the next day he's in Washington, D.C. helming a rally of tens of thousands. Pretty much everyone can agree, he's cultivated a quality few of his peers possess.
"It's a very strange thing to be saying that this TV funny guy who does all sorts of things on the air has gravitas, but he does, especially when he steps outside of his comic role," said C.W. Anderson, assistant professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island. "It shows that in this world of fragmented, faction-ized media, how important personalities are."
"He's been the most vivid voice in an entertainment saturated culture," Gitlin said. "He's been the most available voice in savaging a lunatic right wing for the last decade. But clearly, he's careful about the ways in which he extends himself."
Meaning, the causes he latches on to. The 9/11 health care bill. "The Rally to Restore Sanity." The need to cancel "Crossfire." When he breaks from his regular act and steps on his soap box, ears perk up. Perhaps that's the true similarity with Cronkite and Murrow.
"What Cronkite and Murrow did was they stepped out of their traditional role of objectivity and had an opinion about something," Anderson said. "And when they did that, people noticed, people listened. Jon Stewart always has an opinion. But for Jon Stewart, when he steps outside of his comic role and behaves seriously, people listen."
Ultimately, as Stewart has long asserted, he's not a journalist. Murrow and Cronkite, they were journalists. But, as Sklar pointed out, just because he uses humor to make his arguments doesn't make them less salient. In any area, if the performance is poignant, the point will resonate.
"It was inevitable that all the pointed mirth making would lead to some actual change, said Michael Musto, culture critic for The Village Voice. "When Stewart gets serious -- like with his segment on the health care bill -- it's as powerful as when a comedian does a dramatic role and wins an Oscar."