Monday, December 20, 2010

Jon Stewart Crosses a Line

Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" is making waves again. For his last show of the year, which aired Thursday evening, he spent the bulk of the airtime strongly advocating for the passage of the Zadroga bill for healthcare funds for 9/11 first responders, currently being stalled in the Senate. It was Stewart at his most impassioned and most sincere, calling out not only the Republican senators trying to filibuster the bill, but also the major news networks for failing to address the matter. Though there were a few moments of levity here and there, his usual farce and snark were nowhere to be found.

It seems that after years of blurring the lines between comedian and commentator, Jon Stewart has gone over to the other side. What he did on Thursday's edition of "The Daily Show" - taking a policy position and arguing for it, interviewing a quartet of first responders who would be directly affected by the legislation, and discussing the topic with the night's guest, Mike Huckabee - fell into the usual domain of the Keith Olbermanns and the Bill O'Reillys that "The Daily Show" usually skewers. This is worrisome because Stewart has never gone this far before. He's often in the news for taking political actors and media actors to task, but it was always in the context of satire and comedy. The Rally to Restore Sanity made a huge media splash, but its messages boiled down to a non-specific, non-partisan pleas for moderation in the national political discourse, with a side of Get-Out-the-Vote rhetoric for the November midterm elections.

Thursday night was something else entirely, because the comedian was playing it totally straight with no pretense of going for laughs at all. Stewart has done this from time to time, sometimes taking a few minutes out of his show to opine about the topics he feels most strongly about. His interviews with the major political figures of the day have grown increasingly serious and sometimes contentious over the years. When prodded about his journalistic integrity, Jon Stewart used to argue that as a comedian hosting a basic cable late night show, his influence was limited and he understood his role was a small one. He doesn't say that anymore, because it turns out that a lot of people are listening to him. The mainstream media pounced on the Zadroga story once Stewart brought it to light. Commentators on all sides are clamoring for the bill's passage. New York politicians like Senator Chuck Schumer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have thrown their weight behind it. The bill stands a much better chance of becoming law now, thanks to all the attention, and Stewart may be the one to thank for it.

It comes as something of a shock to realize that the host of "The Daily Show" can and now has used his position and influence to directly affect policy. I agree with Jon Stewart's views more often than not and I respect his efforts to maintain an open mind toward all the various political factions in the past. Held up against all the other political commentators in the media, it's clear that Stewart enjoys the respect that he does because he maintains an outsider status as a comedian, and is not afraid to go after anyone he thinks deserves it. Seeing him actually step in and drive the political discourse on this issue on purpose is unsettling. I'm not sure I like the idea of Stewart as a full-on pundit, even though I'm sure he'd use his powers and platform for good. It feels like he's endangering his rare reputation for neutrality by taking up and championing a specific political cause so strongly. One of the reasons why I think people reacted so strongly to Thursday's episode is because this is something that Jon Stewart never does. So if he's willing to step up to push for the bill, then surely it must be important, right?

The larger question is, does this mean that we can expect Jon Stewart to take up this advocate role again in the future? I'm not sure. I think that Stewart made an exception to his usual hands-off approach because the content of the Zadroga bill is remarkably non-controversial. It's a small spending bill that is deficit neutral, politically safe for both sides, and as Stewart explained to Huckabee during their interview, it's not attached to any other piece of legislation which might provide a legitimate reason to hold it back. The only reason the bill is stuck in the senate is because the it got caught in the middle of the political fight over the Bush tax cut extensions, and time is running out to pass it before the end of the lame duck session. Also, Stewart's made it clear that his biggest beef was with the hypocrisy of the Republican senators who were quick to invoke 9/11 for political speeches, but dragged their heels when tasked with doing something substantive for the 9/11 responders.

However, now that he's done this once, he could easily do it again. The Senate plays these kinds of political games all the time, and Stewart is sure to get riled up by some other issue in the future. As long as he takes up these smaller causes once in a blue moon, I think it's all right, though he's walking an awfully fine line. But if he goes farther and farther down this road, and gives up the comedy act, and actually becomes the next Olbermann or O'Reilly, it would be a terrible loss for the American media - and for the viewers. Pundits come and go, but there's only one "Daily Show" out there, and only one Jon Stewart.

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