Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jon Stewart blurs the lines between jester and journalist

Jon Stewart Blurs The Lines Between Jester And Journalist

by Mark Dawidziak/Plain Dealer Television Critic

Saturday April 11, 2009, 9:00 AM


A funny thing happened to Jon Stewart on the way to "The Daily Show" becoming a forum for national political discussion. People started taking the comedian seriously.


Despite his regular and insistent claims of being just a merry prankster with a fake news program, Stewart more and more is viewed as an influential source of news and information, particularly for young viewers. The Comedy Central star's role as a political satirist and media critic again became a hot topic when, a month ago, he so effectively took apart Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC's "Mad Money."


Launching an all-out assault from his "Daily Show" desk, Stewart accused the CNBC financial expert of ignoring his journalistic responsibilities. The evisceration of Cramer became an Internet sensation, touching off renewed debate about Stewart's use or misuse of humor as a weapon.


Traditionalists view Stewart as something new and dangerous on the media landscape: a jester being mistaken for a journalist. But the joke might be on them. Those who study humor and the media say the traditionalists are ignoring the long traditions of American humor.


Maybe Stewart doesn't represent something very new. Maybe he represents something very old and essential in the nation's character.


"There's a tradition here that you can trace back to the origins of this country," said Robert Abelman, a communications professor at Cleveland State University. "Look at what Benjamin Franklin did when he was an editor in Philadelphia. He was a political satirist very much in the way Jon Stewart is. Franklin was so good, the people he nailed didn't know whether they were being complimented or blasted. And right after a debate in Lincoln's time, political satirists would turn out and poke fun at what the politicians had said. It's always been there as a form of entertainment and information."


Lincoln's favorite humorist was Artemus Ward, a satirist whose columns first appeared in The Plain Dealer. Ward, in turn, inspired Mark Twain, who wrote scathingly humorous indictments of politicians and journalists. "The newspaper business!" Twain wrote. "Sir, I have been through it from Alpha to Omaha, and I tell you that the less a man knows the bigger the noise he makes and the higher the salary he commands."

Jon Stewart takes aim at:


The 2008 Democratic race: "Democrats do have a historic race going. Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama. Normally, when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty."


Journalists: " 'Capote,' of course, addressed very similar themes to 'Good Night, and Good Luck.' Both films are about determined journalists defying obstacles in a relentless pursuit of the truth. Needless to say, both are period pieces."


President Bush on vacation: "He keeps saying 'sacrifice' and the 'war on terror,' and you turn around and he's in a field of poppies with Lance Armstrong."


White House press corps asking about President Bush's service record: "You're starting to ask questions now? Now? All of a sudden, they've got questions, and it's about his Vietnam service. Guys, you're like eight wars behind. Hey! I heard there was a break-in at the Watergate! You might want to check in on that!"


Dennis Kucinich:"I heard Dennis Kucinich say in a debate, 'When I'm president . . .' and I just wanted to stop him and say, 'Dude.' "

The judicial system: "There is no such thing as an impartial jury because there are not impartial people. There are people that argue on the Web for hours about who their favorite character on 'Friends' is."


Will of the people: "You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: It wasn't that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena."


WOMD: "We have it. The smoking gun. The evidence. The potential weapon of mass destruction we have been looking for as our pretext of invading Iraq. There's just one problem -- it's in North Korea."


Twain inspired critic and commentator H.L. Mencken, the most controversial and well-known American journalist from 1915 to 1930. Like Twain, Mencken believed that humor was the secret source to wisdom, insight and perspective.


Like Stewart, Mencken insisted he wasn't a real reporter and that his outraged critics shouldn't expect fairness from a satirist.


"Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken used satire to deal with important issues," said Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "There's this notion that you've got this one group of people who are the keepers of what is news and this other group whose job is to get us to think about things by making us laugh. That distinction really never completely holds up throughout our history. It never has."


Delli Carpini is writing a book with Bruce Williams, a professor in the Media Studies Department of the University of Virginia, about the blurring of news and entertainment.


"Who's the bigger entertainer?" Delli Carpini said. "Cramer, the guy Stewart just criticized, or Stewart? Who's asking the sounder journalistic questions? Who's asking the probing, interesting, important questions and seeking honest answers? I think the answer is pretty clear."


Twain proclaimed that humor "must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever . . . I have always preached."

In England, George Bernard Shaw credited Twain with teaching him that telling the truth is "the funniest joke in the world." In America, Mencken declared, "The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by dunderheads."


It has been furthered, Mencken argued, by a nation's humorists "who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe. . . . One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent."


This American tradition was carried on by Will Rogers in the 1930s, Mort Sahl in '50s, the Smothers Brothers in the '60s, George Carlin and "Saturday Night Live" in the '70s and '80s, and Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chris Rock and Bill Maher today.


"Mark Twain and Will Rogers are two obvious touchstones for what Jon Stewart is doing with 'The Daily Show,' " said author and TV historian David Bianculli, whose book "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' " will be published in November. "They used their voices to come at politicians in just the sort of way that Jon Stewart does -- so well-informed, they're actually making better points than the politicians and pundits."


From Franklin and his printing press to Stewart and his cable show, we've always benefited from the presence of the skeptical, eyebrow-raising scoffer who doesn't pretend to have the right answers but uses humor as a way of inviting people to ask the right questions.


"When you look at this line running through American history, these are not the people providing answers," Abelman said. "But in addition to asking questions, as any good humorist does, they are also demanding answers. More often than not, they're the ones holding people accountable for what they say."


This seemed to be the role Stewart was playing during a 2004 appearance on CNN's "Crossfire." He asked hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to "stop hurting America": "What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery. You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably."


There's nothing new about that message.


"Often enough, Mark Twain in his time or Jon Stewart in ours, is saying to the politician or the journalist, you are not doing your job, you're letting us down, and we need you," Delli Carpini said.


"And as Twain liked to point out, you can't underestimate the power of humor," said Bianculli, a Rowan University professor who operates the Web site "The right quip from Johnny Carson on 'The Tonight Show' could expose a politician's weakness, sometimes fatally. When Jon Stewart takes on a Jim Cramer or 'Crossfire,' he's carrying on that tradition of the intelligent court jester.


He's asking people to look and consider the absurdities in the process."


Comedy Central introduced Stewart as the new host of "The Daily Show" in 1999 with an ad that read: "Because sometimes ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, Headline News, C-SPAN and C-SPAN2 just aren't enough."


More truth in humor?


"I think so," Bianculli said. "He is doing something the mainstream media doesn't do anymore. He's putting the issues into context. He'll ask someone, 'Why should we believe you when six months ago you said this?' He is bringing sense to nonsense."


Delli Caprini agrees: "If you look at what you expect from journalists and news commentators, he's following those rules more than many journalists are. It's true that he is not a journalist, but he's at the top of my list of political commentators on the scene right now. He talks about the most important issues of the day, which is a role many real journalists have abdicated over the years."


What is new about Stewart's use of political humor is that it reaches a primarily young audience, trickling up the age scale and across the Internet. Humorists of the past aimed their material at a voting-age audience, and maybe it trickled down the age scale.


And because "professional journalism is in such disarray right now," Delli Carpini said, Stewart is "filling a void" by reaching young viewers and stirring public discourse.


"We don't think about it at all," Stewart told a group of critics in 2004. "If anybody should be thinking about that, it's news organizations."


Thinking, but perhaps not worked up about it.


"It's typical of people getting older to look in alarm at things that appeal to younger people," Abelman said. "And Jon Stewart can reach the teenagers who are not yet able to vote and get them interested in politics, get them asking questions. And there's nothing at all wrong with that. Anything that contributes to public debate and public discussion is a wonderful thing."


Thoughts on Bill O'Reilly and Squeaky the Chicago Mouse

By Roger Ebert / April 7, 2009

To: Bill O'Reilly
From: Roger Ebert

Dear Bill: Thanks for including the Chicago Sun-Times on your exclusive list of newspapers on your "Hall of Shame." To be in an O'Reilly Hall of Fame would be a cruel blow to any newspaper. It would place us in the favor of a man who turns red and starts screaming when anyone disagrees with him. My grade-school teacher, wise Sister Nathan, would have called in your parents and recommended counseling with Father Hogben.

Yes, the Sun-Times is liberal, having recently endorsed our first Democrat for President since LBJ. We were founded by Marshall Field one week before Pearl Harbor to provide a liberal voice in Chicago to counter the Tribune, which opposed an American war against Hitler. I'm sure you would have sided with the Trib at the time.

I understand you believe one of the Sun-Times misdemeanors was dropping your syndicated column. My editor informs me that "very few" readers complained about the disappearance of your column, adding, "many more complained aboutNancy." I know I did. That was the famous Ernie Bushmiller comic strip in which Sluggo explained that "wow" was "mom" spelled upside-down.

Your column ran in our paper while it was owned by the right-wing polemicists Conrad Black (Baron Black of Coldharbour) and David Radler. We dropped it to save a little money after they looted the paper of millions. Now you call for an advertising boycott. It is unusual to observe a journalist cheering for a newspaper to fail. At present the Sun-Times has no bank debt, but labors under the weight of millions of dollars in tax penalties incurred by Lord Black, who is serving an eight-year stretch for mail fraud and obstruction of justice. We also had to pay for his legal expenses.

There is a major difference between Conrad Black and you: Lord Black is a much better writer and thinker, and authored a respected biography about Roosevelt, who we were founded to defend. That newspapers continue to run your column is a mystery to me, since it is composed of knee-jerk frothings and ravings. If I were an editor searching for a conservative, I wouldn't choose a mad dog. My recommendation: The admirable Charles Krauthammer.

Bill, I am concerned that you have been losing touch with reality recently. Did you really say you are more powerful than any politician?

That reminds me of the famous story about Squeaky the Chicago Mouse. It seems that Squeaky was floating on his back along the Chicago River one day. Approaching the Michigan Avenue lift bridge, he called out: Raise the bridge! I have an erection!

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