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Media Notes: Jon Stewart's Obama barbs on 'The Daily Show' are creating buzz

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; C01

Days before the 2008 election, Jon Stewart jokingly asked Barack Obama whether his "white half" would have trouble making a decision in the voting booth.

"Yeah," the candidate said, "I've been going through therapy to make sure that I vote properly."

Last week, though, the president was the punch line. After showing video of Obama speaking to schoolkids, the "Daily Show" host said in amazement: "You set up a presidential podium and a teleprompter in a sixth-grade classroom? . . . I'm not a political adviser, campaign strategist, et cetera, but that's not a great photo op in a middle school classroom."

It was inevitable that Obama would become a late-night target, at least when Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Dave Letterman have taken time out from sliming one another. But Stewart, who makes no secret of leaning left, is a pop-culture bellwether. And while the White House notes that Obama used the prompter to address journalists, not the students, the details matter little in comedy.

Stewart's barbs are generating partisan buzz. In a tweet, Americablog's John Aravosis invoked Martha Coakley's Massachusetts loss in trashing the prompter joke: "So is this the new post-coakley Jon Stewart, picking on Dems for insignificant BS to burnish his indie credentials. Third time in 7 days." The conservative Fox Nation site, by contrast, ran the video under the gleeful header "Jon Stewart Mocks Obama's Teleprompter Dependence."

"He's clearly become an important cultural arbiter," says Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "He's pulled off the trick of being taken seriously when he wants to be and taken frivolously when he wants to be."

Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and an occasional guest, sees a glimmer of hope. "Jon has always been a crypto-neocon," he e-mails. "Could he be coming out of the closet? . . . A neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality."

Stewart relentlessly ridiculed George W. Bush for eight years, painting the Iraq war as a giant "Mess O' Potamia." He went easier on John Kerry and Obama and, for a time, had trouble attracting Republican guests. That's one reason he and Stephen Colbert became cult heroes for many younger, liberal fans. During the 2008 Democratic convention, Stewart cracked to reporters that comics were giving Obama a pass because of "liberal bias and not wanting to be racist."

But the Comedy Central star has always maintained that his primary job is getting laughs. And ideology aside, it was hard early on for comedians to get a fix on an eloquent new president with no outsize mannerisms. Even Fred Armisen's "Saturday Night Live" impression was pretty lame.

Now, of course, Obama is in rough political waters, which always makes for better material. In recent weeks, Stewart has accused the president of hypocrisy for breaking his pledge to televise legislative negotiations on C-SPAN: "This looks and sounds pretty bad for Obama." His "senior black correspondent," Larry Wilmore, solemnly informed the host that "Negroes aren't magic. . . . He's just suffering from the hard bigotry of high expectations." On another night, Stewart chided Obama for his cerebral style, saying: "You thought you could win us over with rational policy decisions and an even temperament?"

None of these jokes are particularly cutting, but what's telling is that they're being told at all. During the campaign, Lichter says, comedians made far more jokes about George W. Bush and John McCain than about Obama.

As a faux newsman who regularly skewers the media, Stewart is an icon to many journalists, especially those in television who sometimes copy his quick-cut editing techniques. As NBC anchor Brian Williams, a regular guest, told National Public Radio: "A lot of the work that Jon and his staff do is serious. They hold people to account, for errors and sloppiness."

But here, too, Stewart has been strafing all sides. It was no surprise last month when he made fun of Fox News hosts for supposedly celebrating Scott Brown's Senate victory, saying that reflected the network's "mission statement." But he also took on MSNBC's Keith Olbermann for calling Brown "an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, tea-bagging supporter of violence against women." Olbermann once "toiled in the fields of the factual," Stewart said during a clownish impression, but "now you're just kind of calling people names."

The next night, Olbermann played the bit and addressed Stewart: "You're right. I have been a little over the top lately. Point taken. Sorry." Last week Stewart zinged CNN's "best political team" for displaying brief Twitter comments to evaluate Obama's State of the Union address, and Chris Matthews for saying that while watching the speech he forgot the president was black.

The left's honeymoon with Obama ended long ago. Liberal commentators, including Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, have taken shots at him for being too cautious or compromising on various issues. But there is something about a comic caricature that is indelible.

Obama, for his part, understands the importance of the late-night audience. He bantered on air with Leno and Letterman last year, and weeks ago chatted with Stewart backstage at the Kennedy Center Honors, while the comedian's wife, Tracey, teared up in the presidential presence.

We've all seen Jon Stewart fire his comic bazooka, against Tucker Carlson on "Crossfire" and Jim Cramer over CNBC's financial coverage. With Obama, he's merely using a popgun. But given Stewart's platform, even that has quite an echo.

Pre-buttal

When Sen. John Cornyn put out a statement calling Obama's address to Congress flawed but "well-delivered," Politico blogger Ben Smith called out the Texas Republican on the fact that the release went out before the speech. Cornyn says he was "a little offended by the lack of journalistic ethics," since he was making life easier for reporters -- but it was, after all, a minor deception. Smith responds that "you can't put something off the record or under embargo without a reporter's consent." Maybe next time, lawmakers will wait until the person they're castigating has actually spoken.

Triple bogey

Once the Tiger Woods mistress count hit double digits, his marriage was toast, at least according to a spate of media reports.

There was People in December, quoting a "source close to Elin Nordegren," the golfer's wife, as saying "she plans to leave Tiger." Another source told the magazine, "She's made up her mind. There's nothing to think about: he's never going to change."

ABC News.com also got in the game, quoting a source close to Nordegren as saying "divorce is 100 percent on." New York's Daily News said Nordegren "reportedly has the dean of Tinseltown's divorce lawyers on her side as she and the golfing great head for Splitsville." These and similar reports were amplified by Web sites around the country.

Except, um, it didn't happen. Now People reports that "Elin Nordegren is hoping to save her marriage to Tiger Woods because she doesn't want to raise their two children without a father. 'Elin wants a solid family life,' a Florida source tells People."

So is this report any more accurate than the first round of divorce speculation? Who knows? One thing's for sure: No one seems to draw even a one-stroke penalty for celebrity stories that turn out to be wrong.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 12 p.m. Eastern time Monday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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