Jon Stewart Credit: Comedy Central
In an interesting analysis of Jon Stewart’s political sway — specifically his part in passage of the bill to fund treatment for 9/11 first responders — The New York Times speculates that Stewart’s advocacy role ranks with the journalism of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
As one who taught media history for 14 years, I would echo the praise of Stewart but insist upon a big asterisk in the record book. Stewart wasn’t on steroids when he accomplished the feat, but he was clearly playing in a different ballpark than either of the television icons.
Both Murrow and Cronkite were sticklers for what we once called “objectivity” (a sharp contrast to Fox News’ “fair and balanced” claims). It was verboten for a reporter to express personal opinions on the air. Murrow sidestepped the rule with documentaries such as the one that helped bring Sen. Joseph McCarthy down and another powerful one on migrant labor. Cronkite went to Vietnam in 1968 and did a professional job of reporting his trip; only then did he express his personal views, making it abundantly clear what he was doing.
Stewart insists he is not a journalist and does not do reporting in the standard sense of the job. But his interviews and satire frequently expose more of the truth about major issues than regular television news. He and his staff work off the hard-news reporting of mainstream reporters, and don’t originate stories.
The other difference is the nature of media itself. “Opinionators” dominate today’s scene, particularly in cable television, Stewart’s medium. It is increasingly hard to classify these folks: Glenn Beck is basically an entertainer, but what about Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reilly? They do journalism, unlike Beck or Sarah Palin, but it is clearly journalism with an agenda. And they collect large audiences, followers who make them wealthy by buying their books, which of course simply reiterate what they already have said on the tube. They flog their views on Facebook, Twitter, and other networking sites that would appall Cronkite or Murrow.
Stewart quickly captured a youthful audience as dedicated as that of Rush Limbaugh or O’Reilly, and I soon discovered that the college students in my classes — journalism majors even — were taking more of their views on current affairs from the Daily Show than from The New York Times. They knew he wasn’t a journalist as such, but they found he made more sense in their world than the talking heads on Sunday panel shows and was certainly more fun than the daily newspapers. If I wanted to know what they were watching, I would need to watch Jon Stewart.
By the time of Barack Obama, I was retired from teaching but there is no doubt in my mind that Stewart “delivered” tens of thousands of young voters for the Democrats. If Beck and Limbaugh did the same for older white males, Stewart was the conduit for the Change Brigade.
In one way, Stewart’s role in affecting politics is more impressive than Murrow’s or Cronkite’s, in that he literally must beat his way through a thicket of mainstream news, bloggers, entertainers, and celebrities to even be heard. When Murrow and Cronkite set the agenda, they were already at the head of their field, and they had little competition for attention. Both worked for CBS, then the dominant of only three national television networks.
The news agenda was set in the 1960s by a handful of major newspapers, Time and Newsweek, and the three television networks. When Cronkite told us “That’s the way it is” as he signed off his newscast, for millions that was true. Not even on the best ratings night of the year can Jon Stewart approach the dominance of Cronkite and Murrow before him.
So in some ways Stewart’s ability to set a news agenda is even more impressive. But we really do need an asterisk before we put him in the journalism Hall of Fame.