Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jon Stewart, Journalist?

Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Jon Stewart. In a 30-paragraph "news analysis," the New York Times puts the Daily Show host into the journalism pantheon, omitting only Woodward and Bernstein.

Well, yes but... As a comedian, satirist and, not incidentally, media critic, Stewart is a gifted figure, but lines are being blurred here in a way that tells much about our times and which, if he were not on holiday hiatus, Stewart himself might be the first to mock.

The Times and its professorial interviewees label as "advocacy journalism" the Daily Show's last program of the year, which Stewart devoted to outrage at Congress' failure to provide health care for 9/11 responders. Advocacy, certainly. Journalism, not so clear.

In a time when hatred of the media is rising, America's leading newspaper may be damning Stewart with the faint praise of drawing him into its profession. What Stewart more closely resembles, if it can be defined, is something more--the 21st century version of a figure that goes back to Will Rogers and, before he starting writing novels, Mark Twain--the comedic commentator who keeps Americans sane by deflating the political powers-that-be.

On a less exalted level, there was Abraham Lincoln's favorite, Artemus Ward, and in the 1960s, Mort Sahl, who inspired Woody Allen to take up comedy. Sahl would appear onstage or on camera will a rolled-up newspaper and verbally harpoon Presidents from JFK to Reagan.

Calling Stewart a pop social critic could be closer to the mark, but that might lump him with gasbags he so deftly deflates--the cable TV "commentators" who purportedly analyze the news but pour the ketchup of ideology over it and obscure rather than reveal its essence.

Stewart's enraged advocacy for 9/11 police and firemen certainly played a part in getting Congress to act, but it is no compliment to tag him with what Paddy Chayevsky satirized in "Network" by having the loony anchorman billed as "the mad prophet of the airwaves" before being brought down.

His predecessor Will Rogers may have summed up Stewart's social value best when he said, ""Everything is changing. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke."

It may hurt when we laugh, but it helps.

1 comment:

Yellow Dog Don said...

Will Rogers never met Glen Beck.