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Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

Jon Stewart:Trust a Comedian to be Trusted With the Truth

With Stewart no subjects are taboo; no sacred cows unmolested.

A Time Magazine poll crowned Jon Stewart "America's Most Trusted Newscaster, Post-Walter Cronkite." Cronkite, was the highly trusted and popular news anchor who, for almost 20 years, was the face of CBS News.

Stewart and his Daily Show, competed with newscasters from the three major network nightly news programs: Brian Williams (NBC), Katie Couric (CBS) and Gibson (ABC). No cable news anchors, newscasters or commentators were presented as choice options in the poll.

Garnering 44% of the vote, Stewart, The Daily Show desk jockey, won the popularity race by trouncing Brian Williams' 29%, Charlie Gibson's 19%, and Katie Couric's 7%. Being that the poll drew from an exclusive online, self-selecting respondent poll of 9409 people, the responses came from a non-scientific, non-random, non-cross-sectional sample of Americans.

The poll was non-scientific as well because it did not control for responders' age or education, both of which are variables that strongly and positively correlate with audiences of the multiple Emmy winning Stewart and the The Daily Show itself.

This would make the results of this poll totally useless... except for one thing: It's really déjà vu all over again. When Americans were asked in a 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press to name the journalist they most admired, Stewart, the news anchor "Doppelgänger, came in at No. 4, tied with the real news anchors Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw of NBC, Dan Rather of CBS and Anderson Cooper of CNN.

Bluntly speaking, while The Daily Show is a faux news show, Stewart is not a faux newscaster. What he is -- with the inestimable aid of his merry band of writers, comedians, and researchers -- is a news commentator, news satirist and newspeak debunker, all in one. He is a political cartoon in motion. And he's one smart brain and mouth to the bargain. Like so many other comedians, Stewart is a man who found his niche in political humor.

Stewart is extremely talented at what he does: satirizing political absurdities and pontificators, trolling through the swamp of political spins and hypocrisies across the political spectrum and connecting the dots between what passes for news. In so doing, they form a picture of what is rather than what only appears to be on timely issues of social import. His mugging for the camera, especially when he glimpses absurdity from the mouths of political babes, is a killer app.

Some sense of Stewart's integrity is gleaned from the fact that rarely does Stewart throw soft balls during interviews, although he does show some restraint when he's interviewing non-American politicos like Pakistan's former president, Pevez Musharrif," who was in the U.S. promoting his book (you know the old saw: when in Rome, do as the Romans do).

Stewart will poke them but he won't pummel or nuke them like he did with domestic mountebanks like Jim Cramer of business channel MSNBC's Mad Money some months back. He hauled Cramer by his scalp into a clinic on truth-telling for Cramer's misrepresenting his own misguided advisory contribution to the Wall Street melt-down and stock market collapse.

Or when he flat out intimidates Bill Kristol, the right wing pundit and publisher of the Washington-based politically conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, who back-pedals on the Daily Show on nearly every outrageous thing he actually says to his "core constituency" in other, more friendly venues.

Given this predictable retreat into situational sanity when talking with Stewart, at times Kristol even looks reasonable about such matters as the origins of the Iraq war or Bush's or Obama's presidency. But Kristol's been missing in action for some time now; probably giving both sides of his mouth a rest.

In effect, Stewart will confront people, gently or with unrelenting, hollow point bullet humor, in order to get to the truth behind the cant, the facts behind the fiction. He does this night after night. No subjects are taboo; no sacred cows left unmolested.

The Daily Show backs up most of what it ridicules or exposes with damning footage from their video archives or by framing these issues in show segments with titles like Mess O' Potamia, dealing with the Middle East and the Iraq war, Guantanamo Baywatch, Indecision 2008 and other presidential election years.

This talks to the breadth of the show's ascerbic reach and its willingness, its enthusiasm, in drilling down on issues and subjects that get hopelessly mired in politicalspeak in traditional news shows and political magazines like Time or Newsweek.

Yes, The Daily Show commerces in humor. So what! Humor can be deadly serious, especially political humor. Recall some of the great comedic or humorist thoughtful observers of the contemporary scene like Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce or theater figures like performer-playwrights Eric Bogosian or Anna Deavere Smith. They use(d) humor to convey serious messages because with humor you don't know that you've been educated until later, when you find what they said in humor informing what you say and think in serious discussion and contemplation.

This is the gestation process of humor. Humor often sneaks up on us and bypasses our usual censors. Only later do we realize we've been touched, changed, enlightened. And it didn't hurt as much as we feared.

We need programs like The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, or The Colbert Report to remind us of threats to democracy and unearth the footprints of demagogues. Walter Cronkite kept a watchful eye a good deal of the time during his 19 years in the CBS News anchor chair. But times have changed. Media and social sensibilities and ethics have changed. News is now in the network entertainment division. It is genuflected toward entertainment rather than toward edification of a body politic.

Smart TV is an endangered species. It must be protected and supported. There's Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, Bill Maher and, for the moment, the list essentially stops there. Well, maybe the Jim Lehrer News Hour deserves a place at the table that serves up political awareness.

But, whoever brings us to the flow of information and makes us want to drink is a national resource. That we trust them over network news anchors (or at least the segment of the population that answered the Time's online poll does) is both a good thing and a very bad thing.

Our erstwhile witty but misguided Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, observed that "You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want." So too with our news sources and sentinels -- in this case, our comedians, playwrights and humorists. They bring real news when the real newscasters get lost in a wilderness of ego.


About the Author

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., was Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.