The Washington Post celebrated Jon Stewart in a very gooey artistic fashion on Monday: in a drawing, it made Stewart all four faces on Mount Rushmore. The headline was "Who Does Jon Stewart Think He Is?" Obviously, he'd disavow being great enough to replace four iconic presidents on a mountain face. The story by Post reporter Paul Farhi also began with goo:
These days, he can claim to be many things: political satirist, pseudo-anchorman, media critic, author, successful businessman, philanthropist, Emmy Award magnet. On Monday he arrives in Washington in a new, self-anointed role: as our national voice of reason, moderation and rationality -- a uniter, you might say, not a divider.
But Farhi wasn't completely in tune with the glorifying artwork. He compared Stewart's rally with Glenn Beck's August 28 "Restoring Honor" rally in its "nonpartisan" nature (Mt. "Stewmore" image below):
Nevertheless, the similarities to Beck's rally are just the sort of thing Stewart himself would satirize on his show if, of course, it weren't his rally and his TV show in the first place. In his few pre-rally comments, Stewart has reached for some of the broad values and high-minded themes that Beck's did -- civility, decency, making America better -- though admittedly with fewer religious allusions and more comic panache. And whereas Beck undercut his claim of non-political intent by inviting Sarah Palin to be his co-star, Stewart may have undercut his by allying with a couple of noted liberals, Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey. He'll also get a nice plug this week, while here at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall to tape "The Daily Show," from President Obama, scheduled to appear on the show on Wednesday.
But the academic experts the Post reporter called up were clearly more in tune with the Mount Rushmore thing, that Stewart was reaching a new and glorious plateau of media influence:
"He is mobilizing people like Glenn Beck does, but I suspect his cultural influence surpasses Beck's," says Geoffrey Baym, a media studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, who wrote one of the first scholarly studies of "The Daily Show" in 2005. "[Beck] has a narrow but very committed audience whereas Stewart resonates much wider with people who are fed up with the polemical aspects" of national affairs. "He's reaching a watershed moment."
Farhi argued "Stewart's breakthrough moment may have been his 2004 appearance on the CNN show Crossfire, in which he denounced the "partisan hackery" of the program to its flummoxed hosts, " and the show got abruptly canceled, with CNN president Jon Klein saying he agreed with Stewart that Crossfire was setting America back. Seeking to please Stewart gives you a two-liberal program like CNN's failing new chat show Parker Spitzer.
Farhi's panel of academics praised Stewart's media criticism, although he nudges them to acknowledge Stewart has a liberal bias:
The notion that the media emphasize conflict rather than offering illumination or accountability is at the heart of "The Daily Show's" daily take. Baym says the program has offered "an important new model of journalism," that abandons traditional ideas about "objectivity" or "neutrality" and instead challenges the underlying veracity of official claims and statements. A staple of the show is a clip of a politician or official saying one thing, followed by the same official saying something contradictory a few weeks or months earlier, followed by Stewart with a look of mock-horror or surprise.
"He's really creating a discussion around those clips," Feldman says. "He's promoting discourse and activism. I think he's teaching people a form of media literacy and making them more discerning and skeptical. He's not replacing what journalists do -- gathering the facts -- but he is challenging the media to think more broadly about what they're doing and how they're doing it."
Nevertheless, there are many, including Feldman, who don't view Stewart and his program as above politics or partisanship. "The Daily Show's" popularity soared as a direct result of its relentless satirical broadsides against the Bush administration. While it certainly hasn't ignored Obama's foibles and missteps, the critique seems less frequent and more subdued. One telling statistic: During Bush's two terms, only one Cabinet member, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, appeared on the show. During President Obama's first two years, six Cabinet secretaries have been guests, plus the head of the EPA, and first lady Michelle Obama.
At the same time, much of Stewart's media criticism has focused on Fox News, the most overtly conservative of the three cable news networks.
"I won't deny his partisanship," Feldman says. "It's quite obvious to many viewers. He doesn't point out the absurdity of the left as much as the right, but he will do it. But I do think he is nonpartisan in his desire to create more civil dialogue."
Baym agrees that the program and its host are "center-left" but "it's a mistake to try to put it on a straight left-right continuum. I don't think Stewart wants to be typecast as another liberal player. That undermines him. . . . He's a progressive but his bias is toward reasonableness."