Just who does Jon Stewart think he is?

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; C01

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.

Jon Stewart's Saturday afternoon "Rally to Restore Sanity" (merged with partner-in-satire Stephen Colbert's concurrent "March to Keep Fear Alive") may become the largest "nonpartisan" event to hit the national Mall since . . . well, since a couple of months ago, when another basic-cable TV star, Glenn Beck, hosted his "Restoring Honor" rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Beck claimed his event was nonpartisan, too.

With less than a week to go, it's still not exactly clear how Stewart will be using this new platform. No guests or musical acts have been announced, Stewart has done only a couple media interviews, and he's offered few details about the rally on his nightly program.

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.

Stewart has also insisted that the timing of the gathering is coincidental to the midterm election three days later, a statement that has faint echoes of Beck's disclaimer that his event was inadvertently scheduled on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Stewart, 47, has never claimed to be anything more than a guy trying to get laughs on "a fake news program on basic cable," as he puts it. While that surely understates his case, it comports with his background as a stand-up comic and entertainer.

Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, Stewart (born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) rattled around the stand-up comedy circuit after graduating from William & Mary in 1984 before landing a memorable role on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" in the early 1990s. This was followed by hosting gigs on several long-forgotten MTV and Comedy Central shows and a few better-forgotten movie roles ("Half Baked"). He landed at "The Daily Show's" desk in 1999 as Craig Kilborn's replacement.

Since then, Stewart's stature as a news source, kingmaker and sociocultural figure has grown apace, abetted in no small part by "The Daily Show's" skeptical "reporting" on the Bush administration, the news media and politics in general. The show has even spawned an academic cottage industry of scholars who probe the program's impact on society.

'A watershed moment'

It's true that the 11 p.m. broadcast of "The Daily Show" (which runs Monday through Thursday) plays to a relatively modest crowd -- an average of just 1.8 million viewers a night thus far in October. But that doesn't count four daily repeats on Comedy Central, which nearly double the program's daily audience to 3.5 million. This means Stewart has roughly the same number of viewers as "Nightline," David Letterman or Jay Leno, and a bigger audience than any show on the cable news networks except "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News Channel.

Add in the untold millions who see "DS" clips embedded on Facebook pages, blogs and Web sites, or read about him in the mainstream media (media types love yakking about "The Daily Show"), and you've got a cultural force that transcends mere "basic cable."

"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."

Nor is Stewart's news entirely fake. Much has been written about "The Daily Show" as legitimate news, particularly among young viewers who've grown up watching Stewart. An often-cited study by the Pew Research Center in 2004 found that almost as many people under 30 (21 percent) relied on comedy shows such as Stewart's for information about the presidential campaign as relied on the networks' evening newscasts (23 percent).

In a follow-up study in 2006, Julia R. Fox of Indiana University found something even more startling: "The Daily Show" contained roughly the same amount of audio and visual "substance" in its political stories as the network newscasts (on the other hand, Fox noted, neither source was all that substantial).

Whether watching "The Daily Show" makes you smarter has been an emerging question among academics, who seem as much in love with "The Daily Show" as journalists. But Lauren Feldman, an assistant professor at American University, suggests in a forthcoming collection of academic research about Stewart and Colbert that Stewart's program has raised viewer awareness of science and environmental issues.

"In most cases, people are already bringing some knowledge to the show," Feldman says, echoing comments Stewart has made. "You need some background knowledge to [get the satire]. I would say that the people who are watching are broadly interested in politics but are not necessarily well-versed in its nuances."

Some research backs this up. Another survey, this one from 2007, classified 54 percent of the "Daily Show" audience as "high-knowledge" viewers, based on a current-events test. This equaled the percentage of those who were readers of major newspaper Web sites and slightly exceeded viewers of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS, "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox or NPR's regular listeners.

Stewart's political clout has been evident since at least 2003, when former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) announced his presidential candidacy on the show. Democratic candidate John Kerry was a guest in 2004, and candidate Barack Obama made the now obligatory pilgrimage to the program's studios in New York's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood a few days before the 2008 election. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom Stewart calls a friend, was a frequent guest. President Bush was never a guest.

Just as he giveth a platform for politicians and presidents, Stewart can taketh away, too. 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, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. The clip quickly went viral on the Internet; when CNN canceled "Crossfire" a few weeks later, the network's new president said, "I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart's overall premise."

The media challenge

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."

And so, a mass gathering with the stated aim of being nice. Is that a role a satirist can really play?

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