In his much publicized appearance on Crossfire on October 15, 2004, Jon Stewart accused Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala of "hurting America." When Carlson responded that Stewart himself rarely asks tough questions during his interviews, Stewart argued that The Daily Show cannot be held to the same standard as CNN because it follows "puppets making prank phone calls."
While he may have agreed with this argument at the time, his interview style as well the overall tone of the show seems to have evolved in the last six years to become one of the most hard-hitting programs on television. Since his Crossfire appearance, Stewart has had intense recent encounters with MSNBC's Jim Cramer, Betsy McCaughey, and John Yoo.
In the same way that CNN seems to have taken Stewart's criticism to heart in canceling Crossfire, Stewart may have internalized Tucker Carlson's critique of his show. Indeed, The Daily Show is now much more than a comedy show. For a purveyor of fake news, Stewart has been recognized as one of the most trusted newsmen in the country. According to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey, Stewart landed in fourth place, tied with Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Anderson Cooper, as the journalist that Americans most admired.
This may prove to be all the more true now following his announcement of a Rally to Restore Sanity, to take place on October 30, 2010 on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Many commentators have noted the increasing tide of irrationality, alarmism, and fear that has been pervading public discourse in the United States. Stewart rightly wonders why the fringe has been allowed to dominate the conversation.
"Why don't we hear from the 70 to 80 percenters?" he asks, and proceeds to answer his own question: "You may lack the theatrical flair necessary for today's 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week news media." The rally is a "clarion call for rationality," he said on his show, designed to urge American to "take it down a notch."
Many media studies and communications scholars have noted that much of what passes for real news in contemporary America is nothing more than theatre. Indeed, it may take a trusted "fake newsman" to goad real news programs to stop being so fake. During the 2008 U.S. election, John McCain hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, and appeared alongside Tina Fey, portraying herself as Sarah Palin. McCain wholeheartedly participated in the skit during which Fey's Palin "goes rogue" and attempts to sell "Palin in 2012" t-shirts. As Mark McBeth and Randy Clemons have argued, "It was a surreal moment, a Republican candidate for president on a show with a simulated vice-presidential candidate making fun of his own ticket."
According to McBeth and Clemons,
"While SNL's 'Weekend Update' segment was considered sharp political satire in the 1970s, much of what was done on that show is today done more sensationally in real news programs on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. How could suave original anchor Chevy Chase compete with the likes of Lou Dobbs, Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, and Bill O'Reilly, and their highly postmodern mixing of entertainment, commentary, and news?"
One wonders whether Stewart and Colbert can even compete with the news commentators of today.
According to Robert W. McChesney, professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while Stewart and Colbert are brilliant satirists, their success points to a depressing, yet hopeful, fact.
"Stewart and Colbert actually demonstrate the idiotic, bogus and propagandistic nature of what people in power and 'newsmakers' say, in a manner that would be considered 'ideological' and 'unprofessional' were it to come from a mainstream newsroom,"
he says. However, he notes, "by avoiding the absurd professional practices, they can get us much closer to the truth. Fake news becomes real journalism."
While I stated above that Jon Stewart is more than just a comedian, this does not imply that he is a journalist. There is no "breaking news" on The Daily Show, and there is no hard-hitting investigative journalism. Both Stewart and Colbert are fundamentally dependent on the mainstream media, and when nothing more is required for satire than simply playing a video clip from a news program -- when the media itself becomes the punchline -- there is serious harm done to the public discourse. Jon Stewart seems to understand this all too well.