Jon Stewart, Journalist?
More than a Daily dose of news.


Media critics often wring their hands over how so much of the youth demographic now gets its news with a twist–from The Daily Show and other late-night programs hosted by former standup comics–instead of straight, from serious talking heads like Dan Rather.


Meet the Fake Press

But I find The Daily Show, with its deadpan satire of all those familiar media clichés (self-importantly sympathetic correspondents; tear-eyed celebrities in ersatz unguarded moments), a lethally funny antidote to serious TV-news smarm. Besides being the most reliably on-target parody on TV, though, the Comedy Central show has evolved into a bizarro news program in its own right.

And even those in the business point out this is the new reality.

“If you’re an 18-year-old kid, who are you going to trust to give you the facts?” Eddie Feldmann, executive producer of CNBC’s Dennis Miller, asked rhetorically recently. “Dan Rather in that epaulet jacket where he’s just about to go fly-fishing after the show, or Jon Stewart? Of course you’re going to listen to Jon.”

As it happens, Rather himself may be O.K. with that. “If we cover something on the Evening News,” Rather said at a CBS press conference about election-year coverage, “then Jon Stewart may very well deal with it on his show or Letterman on his. So it feeds on one another.” And Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume pointed out that “in the course of setting up jokes, [late-night hosts] are at least getting in a bit of news.”

Even Connie Chung seemed to recognize Jon Stewart as a legitimate fellow news announcer when she asked him a couple of years ago, apparently seriously, if he’d been asked to replace Dan Rather or Peter Jennings.

Much of Stewart’s charm comes from this constant, self-deprecatory shrug. “Thanks for meeting the fake press,” he said recently to Meet the Press’s Tim Russert, who’d stopped by to hawk his new book. And yet, especially in its election-year coverage, Stewart and his team can reveal something about politics that serious news shows miss.

“All we want is one human moment,” Stewart said, about Daily Show interviews in which he or his correspondents ask politicians rudely blunt or seemingly idiotic questions. Before the Democratic candidates had winnowed down just to John Kerry, for instance, Stewart remarked to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle that it must be a grind having nine hopefuls in the race.

“He said, ‘No, it’s an exciting time,’” Stewart recalled. “And I said, ‘Really? Because it seems like it’s crushing you.’ And at that moment he just kind of stopped, and he started to giggle. That’s the moment you look for, where they’re showing their humanity–if it still exists. Which in many cases, you know, it does not.”

It’s a tribute to the show’s sharpness that its fans are not just fellow Democrats, even though Stewart’s Bush-bashing has increased markedly in the past few months. Stewart’s politically minded celebrity guests can be worse.

A filmmaker friend of mine, a fellow right-wing Daily Show fan who recently moved back to the U.S. after almost 20 years working in Paris and London, was infuriated recently by seeing Janeane Garofalo tell Stewart in appalled tones that President Bush actually believes in the Bible.

Seeing the rise of Islamofascism up close and personal in Europe has given my friend little patience for this sort of thing. “She’d never say about some Islamic leader, ‘He believes in the Koran’ in the same shocked way,” he pointed out. “Because then there’d be a fatwa on her stupid little head.”

But the other side gets its share of hits on the Daily Show too, often in the same bit: “Please explain to me how John Kerry sounds more di**ish telling the truth than Bush does when he’s lying?” Stewart asked on-camera recently.

Paging Dr. Gupta

The show often aims arrows at the media itself rather the subjects of media coverage. “I think it’s relatively atrocious,” Stewart said of today’s 24-hour cable-news cycle. “Not that we shouldn’t know when someone’s been kidnapped. I think we should. We just don’t have to wait until they come back for them to go talk about another story.”

He faked exasperation (or maybe he wasn’t faking) when asked why so much news programming seems to be filled with what is only by the most generous definition of the word news.

“Sir, we don’t have their offices bugged!” Stewart responded. “I don’t know why they’re doing it. They have to fill time. They have 24 hours, and there’s only so many times you can page Dr. Gupta. Do you watch CNN? Every now and again, like when SARS comes out, they’re ‘Paging Dr. Gupta.’ And then he walks in, it’s like, ’We’re all gonna die!’ and then he walks away again.

Especially during an election year, the line between news and news satire becomes blurred. How different are many political ads, really, from Daily Show correspondent Steven Colbert’s fake one–which listed Colbert as “running for government office (TBD–to be determined.)” and had Colbert announcing, “I believe that elementary schools should be for our children! But my opponent”–flash to a quick headshot of Hitler–”is against all that.”

Then the music rose inspirationally as the camera returned to Colbert, just the way it always does on The West Wing when President Martin Sheen is debating some Republican adversary.

Stewart is master of the deadpan retort, which is of course far more effective than simply railing against the often idiotic habits of the media. A stellar moment was when he ran a clip of the New York Times’s Elizabeth Bumiller pressing Kerry on whether he considered himself a liberal or not.

“Please, answer the question!” Stewart interrupted at his desk, voicing Bumiller’s supposed thoughts. “I don’t want to have to think of a better one.”

Bumiller, in clip, to Kerry: “Is God on our side?”

Stewart, in studio, to audience: “Top of your head: ‘Why are we here?’ Out of your a**: ‘Meaning of life?’”

Exporting Stewart

I wonder sometimes how all this plays around the world, now that CNN has been airing a weekly version of The Daily Show for the past year-and-a-half, with an emphasis on celebrity interviews and international topics, since so much of the show’s essence is its parody of American peculiarities.

For his part, Stewart isn’t exactly awed by CNN and its global audience. “Basically, my feeling is this: If you can make it in Bahrain, you can make it United Arab Emirates,” he said. “We’re just excited to have the opportunity to let down the entire world. I feel badly for the countries that think we’re serious,” Stewart continued, “but I have heard that in sub-Saharan Africa, irony is a real art form.”

“Listen, this is not the first time we’ve been broadcast internationally,” he noted, pointing out that The Daily Show (which premiered in 1996 with Craig Kilborn, although Stewart didn’t take over till three years later) has been seen in Canada since the fall of 1999.

“And may I say, without incident,” Stewart added. “As a matter of fact, I believe that our show has helped promote a healing between the two countries.”

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.