When conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck take stands against Obama-care or amnesty for illegal immigrants, the New York Times is quick to raise concerns. But certain correct causes and personalities not only get a pass but receive heroic treatment. A prime example is comedian-activist Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central and main news source for many young liberal hipsters.
Stewart is celebrated once again by the Times, this time on the front of the Monday Business section by media reporters David Carr and Brian Stelter, for his latest crusade, a push to fund the health care of 9-11 responders who became ill. The online headline “In ‘Daily Show’ Role on 9/11 Bill, Echoes of Murrow.” A comparison to Murrow, the vaunted journalist slayer of Sen. Joe McCarthy, is a deep compliment in liberal media circles.
Did the bill pledging federal funds for the health care of 9/11 responders become law in the waning hours of the 111th Congress only because a comedian took it up as a personal cause?
And does that make that comedian, Jon Stewart -- despite all his protestations that what he does has nothing to do with journalism -- the modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow?
Certainly many supporters, including New York’s two senators, as well as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, played critical roles in turning around what looked like a hopeless situation after a filibuster by Republican senators on Dec. 10 seemed to derail the bill.
But some of those who stand to benefit from the bill have no doubt about what -- and who -- turned the momentum around.
The Times quoted Kenny Specht, the founder of the New York City Firefighter Brotherhood Foundation, and NYC Mayor (and frequent Stewart guest) Mike Bloomberg, praising Stewart's activism.
Though he might prefer a description like “advocacy satire,” what Mr. Stewart engaged in that night -- and on earlier occasions when he campaigned openly for passage of the bill -- usually goes by the name “advocacy journalism.”
There have been other instances when an advocate on a television show turned around public policy almost immediately by concerted focus on an issue -- but not recently, and in much different circumstances.
The Times next turned to a ubiquitous liberal media presence -- Professor Robert Thompson of Syracuse University -- to hail Stewart as the successor to two past liberal media heroes, Murrow and news anchor Walter Cronkite. Murrow is hailed for turning the public against Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Communist “witchhunt,” Cronkite for turning people against the Vietnam War after the Tet Offensive in 1968 and convincing President Lyndon Johnson not to run for a second term.
Though the scale of the impact of Mr. Stewart’s telecast on public policy may not measure up to the roles that Mr. Murrow and Mr. Cronkite played, Mr. Thompson said, the comparison is legitimate because the law almost surely would not have moved forward without him. “He so pithily articulated the argument that once it was made, it was really hard to do anything else,” Mr. Thompson said.
Stewart blamed both the Republicans (for hypocrisy) and the broadcast networks for not reporting on the bill.
Mr. Stewart is usually extremely careful about taking serious positions for which he might be accused of trying to exert influence. He went to great lengths to avoid commenting about the intentions of his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington in October, and the rally itself emphasized such less-than-impassioned virtues as open-minded debate and moderation.
In its enthusiastic coverage of Stewart's rally in DC, The Times never commented on the irony of the former Cat Stevens, who supported the deadly fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie in 1989) being prominently featured at a debate for “moderation.”
The Times went to the well of conventional wisdom once again with the ubiquitous professor Thompson.
For Mr. Stewart, the topic of the 9/11 attacks has long been intensely personal. He lives in the TriBeCa area and has noted that in the past, he was able to see the World Trade Center from his apartment. Like other late-night comedians, he returned to the air shaken by the events and found performing comedy difficult for some time.
But comedy on television, more than journalism on television, may be the most effective outlet for stirring debate and effecting change in public policy, Mr. Thompson of Syracuse said. “Comedy has the potential to have an important role in framing the way we think about civic life,” he said.