Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowledge, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

Satirist Stewart touted as America’s new Edward R. Murrow

Jon Stewart, host of 'The Daily Show,' on Dec. 16, 2010 with a group of New York City 9/11 first responders

A New York Times article asks whether Jon Stewart of The Daily Show fame is to our times what CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow was to the news media of the 1950s.

My tweeted response?

Jon Stewart has his Murrow-esque moments mainly when he abandons his comedic persona & plays a journalist on TV.

Murrow,most recently portrayed in the 2005 film Good Night and Good Luck, is considered a journalistic hero by many (there are some tidbits in my archives; here’s the Murrow Wikipedia entry).

The comparison is being bandied about — by exactly one professor — as a result of Stewart’s efforts to publicize the opposition of U.S. Senate  Republicans towards a bill that provides federal health-care funds for 9/11 first responders.

In a decidedly unsatiric moment, Stewart had four first responders appear on the Dec. 16 broadcast (link only works in Canada). Some of those poor guys are likely to die from the toxins they breathed in after the towers collapsed, and they are caught in a bureaucratic nightmare with regards to getting their health care funded.

Six days later, the bill cleared the Senate.*

* Note this from the Atlantic Wire: “Outside the Beltway’s Doug Mataconis takes issue with Stewart’s coverage of the bill, which Mataconis says was reductive and misleading. Mataconis has “serious questions” about the bill but, “given the emotionalism of the Stewart argument, that just makes someone [who raises those questions] sound like a heartless bastard. That’s not journalism, it’s activism. I happen to be a huge Daily Show/Colbert Report fan, but when people start mistaking what they do for serious journalism, we’ve got a problem.”

From the NYT:

There have been other instances when an advocate on a television show turned around public policy almost immediately by concerted focus on an issue — but not recently, and in much different circumstances.

“The two that come instantly to mind are Murrow and Cronkite,” said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television at Syracuse University.

Edward R. Murrow turned public opinion against the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Mr. Thompson noted that Mr. Murrow had an even more direct effect when he reported on the case of Milo Radulovich, an Air Force lieutenant who was stripped of his commission after he was charged with associating with communists. Mr. Murrow’s broadcast resulted in Mr. Radulovich’s reinstatement.

Walter Cronkite’s editorial about the stalemate in the war in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968 convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that he had lost public support and influenced his decision a month later to decline to run for re-election.

Though the scale of the impact of Mr. Stewart’s telecast on public policy may not measure up to the roles that Mr. Murrow and Mr. Cronkite played, Mr. Thompson said, the comparison is legitimate because the law almost surely would not have moved forward without him. “He so pithily articulated the argument that once it was made, it was really hard to do anything else,” Mr. Thompson said.

Stewart also took some shots at network news organizations for their failure to cover the story aggressively. In the broadcast, he said: “None of three broadcast networks have mentioned this on their evening newscasts for two-and-a-half months.” He went on to mock them for coverage of the Beatles being available on iTunes. 

Under the circumstances, it might be worth analyzing how much sustained coverage The Daily Show gave the story. I only remember the one item, but I haven’t researched the issue.*

* A commenter below points to at least three instances where Stewart has mentioned the story prior to Dec. 16

There was some network response in the NYT story:

Brian Williams, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News” and another frequent Stewart guest, did not comment on his network’s news judgment in how it covered the bill, but he did offer a comment about Mr. Stewart’s role.

“Jon gets to decide the rules governing his own activism and the causes he supports,” Mr. Williams said, “and how often he does it — and his audience gets to decide if they like the serious Jon as much as they do the satirical Jon.”

Stewart’s audience does allow him to change gears from satire to what appears to be journalism, or at least the advocacy form of the craft. Thompson said of the two, comedy may be the more powerful weapon in the battle for public opinion.

“Comedy has the potential to have an important role in framing the way we think about civic life,” he said.

And Mr. Stewart has thrust himself into the middle of that potential, he said.

“I have to think about how many kids are watching Jon Stewart right now and dreaming of growing up and doing what Jon Stewart does,” Mr. Thompson said. “Just like kids two generations ago watched Murrow or Cronkite and dreamed of doing that. Some of these ambitious appetites and callings that have brought people into journalism in the past may now manifest themselves in these other arenas, like comedy.”

As someone who has aspired to be a journalist, allow me to say I would be saddened if Thompson’s claim were true. But let’s also remember that journalism exerts influence differently than advocacy.

Let’s also keep in mind there are very few influential satirists. Besides Stewart, there’s also Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report (care to revisit Colbert’s savage lampooning of George W. Bush?).

How often does a joke or comedy sketch, on its own, resonate enough to shift public policy? My guess? Not very often.

However, it is true that charismatic television commentators have more opportunity to influence the opinions of their audiences than do basic news anchors, let alone reporters. Two prominent conservative counterparts to Stewart and Colbert are Fox News’s Glenn Beck* and Bill O’Reilly.

* Beck held the Aug. 28 “Restoring Honour” rally in Washington, while Stewart and Colbert countered with the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on Oct. 30

Moral clarity

News anchors generally don’t exert direct, overt influence unless they express what I would call moments of moral clarity.

Murrow had one on March 9, 1954 during a special report of his show See It Now. Here is a commentary from that show:*

* Note this from a 2007 article on the website of the PBS show American Masters: “The program, composed almost entirely of McCarthy’s own words and pictures, was a damning portrait of a fanatic. McCarthy demanded a chance to respond, but his rebuttal, in which he referred to Murrow as ‘the leader of the jackal pack,’ only sealed his fate. The combination of the program’s timing and its persuasive power broke the Senator’s hold over the nation. The entire fiasco, however, caused a rift with CBS, and they decided to discontinue See It Now.”

On Dec. 2, 1954, the Senate voted 67-22 to censure McCarthy. They didn’t do it on March 10.

For Cronkite, it was a one-off editorial comment on the Vietnam War in the wake of the Tet Offensive. He made it after reporting from Vietnam.

Legend has it that then-U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson said that if he lost Cronkite on Vietnam, he’d lost Middle America. But one could also argue Cronkite was just stating the obvious.*

* According to this PBS biography, Cronkite downplayed the influence of his remarks, telling CNN in 2002: “After all, at that moment, President Johnson himself was already making the decision to get out of the war, and I just put one more little needle on the haystack, I think.”

In those days, Cronkite didn’t have much competition for the role of America’s Authoritative News Voice. In those days, there were no cable news networks. CNN didn’t debut until June 1, 1980. MSNBC came into this world on July 15, 1996, while Fox News followed on Oct. 7, 1996.

As the TV audience splintered, the market share of the network newscasts eroded and they were left with an increasingly old demographic. As a result, less influence. For details on how the U.S. Amnets fared in terms of audience share in 2009, see the network TV section of the 2010 State of the Media report produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

In the cable news section, the first few paragraphs say it all:

Maybe one of the few questions left about cable news is whether a channel attempting to build its brand around neutral reporting and balanced conversation can succeed.

The medium became noticeably more partisan in tone in 2009, adding ideological talk show hosts to prime time and shedding dissenting voices.

These programs saw audience growth ahead of more neutral programs.

Stewart’s show is on cable in the U.S., a property of Comedy Central. In Canada, it is broadcast on cable (the Comedy Network) and the main CTV network (I work for CTV News). It’s fair to say Stewart has a point of view.

Interestingly, I could only find one reference to Stewart in the PEJ report, in the cable TV specialty channels section:

Another host who found himself in public controversy during the year was Jim Cramer. Cramer had made a name for himself by mixing strident financial advice with showmanship on his prime-time CNBC program, Mad Money. On March 12, 2009, Comedy Central’s Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, skewered Cramer during an on-set interview. Stewart accused Cramer and CNBC of participating in the swindling of average investors. “[Insider trading] is a game that you know is going on,” Stewart said, “but you go on television as a financial network and pretend it isn’t happening.”

That was considered by some to be a Murrow-esque moment for Stewart, but putting the boots to Cramer was easy pickings for him.

The report as a whole didn’t talk about whether Stewart and Colbert would be taking over from journalists as role models for impressionable youth who want to play a role in their country’s public life.

But in terms of Stewart’s impact as even a high-profile satirist, Jay Cost of RealClearPolitics had this observation in an April 24, 2009 post headlined Does Jon Stewart Influence Public Opinion?

… We have to be careful not to overestimate the magnitude of Stewart’s effect, even if we admit he has one. It’s one thing to talk about a news slant having an influence on people. But when we’re talking about an influence on people’s political choices, we have to keep in mind the appropriate scale. Last week The Daily Show pulled in 1.6 million viewers. That’s fewer than Adult Swim on Cartoon Network and just 1.2% of the total number of people who voted for President last November. Additionally, more than half of the core audience for The Daily Show identified itself as Democrat during both conventions in 2004, and only between 20% and 40% labeled themselves Independent, the political group whose votes are most up for grabs. So, we’re talking about an even smaller fraction of the total population that might actually be swayed. And, from the looks of it, those who are otherwise inclined to the GOP click away from Comedy Central at 11 PM – meaning that while Stewart might be skewering Republicans most harshly, he is basically preaching to the converted.

In mid-December, the U.S. network news shows had the following total audiences, according to this TV By The Numbers post:

  • NBC – 9.66 million
  • ABC – 8.28 million
  • CBS – 6.22 million

The Daily Show, which is broadcast at 11 p.m., had 1.6 million viewers, according to this TV By The Numbers post. The late-night network talk shows have more than double the audience of Jonno and company.

But Stewart picked the right issue on which to take a stand — and it resonated. I saw the item and thought, “‘This isn’t typical Daily Show fare.'” It also wasn’t journalism. The four affected responders got to tell their story on TV. They were hardly cross-examined. There was Stewart’s commentary and some highly selective editing of clips from Republican senators.

It was all for a good cause. First responders run into burning, collapsing buildings to help people regardless of the risk to their own health or safety. After they have done so, the least a wealthy society can do is say, “We’ve got your back” on health costs for any injuries they may have suffered.

Stewart displayed moral clarity. But his show didn’t have an effect because he was doing comedy that night, or even because he was doing journalism, but because he was doing advocacy. He may have swayed public opinion as a result.

So I don’t think my tweet got it right. Comedian Jon Stewart, who sometimes plays a journalist on TV, was being an outraged citizen with a big, televised microphone.

Addendum

For additional reading, go to my Dec. 23 post, Can an auditor-general’s report bring down a government?, and scroll down to the subheadline Routine scandals.

I have an extensive Jon Stewart archive, but here are some key reads:

A Twitter exchange

Veteran online journalist Steve Outing said on Twitter:

Was 2010 the Year of Dysfunctional Mainstream Press? (trumped by Wikileaks; comedian forces 9-11 responders bill; Fox News bias…)

Me:

@steveouting But Stewart wasn’t being a comedian in his 9/11 first responders panel interview. He was being an advocate.

@billdinTO And your point? … Comedians sometimes advocates; journalists sometimes advocates. Many ethical examples of latter.

@steveouting I’m guessing your point is that mainstream news orgs should have worked to force the 9/11 responders bill the way Stewart did.

@billdinTO That it was mostly ignored by corporate news media is the problem. Op-ed columnists, editorials could’ve pushed for it.

@steveouting How many previous items did Stewart do on the filibuster of the 9/11 first resp. bill? I don’t recall very many.

@billdinTO MediaMatters: “On night of vote, Daily Show With Jon Stewart covered the vote.” DS: better researchers than news orgs?

@steveouting 1) Link to MM item, pls. 2) Sometimes, TDS does outresearch the networks & finds int’g patterns. That’s the benefit of a POV.

@billdinTO MediaMatters coverage: http://goo.gl/NzQMl But why should Daily Show do multi-night coverage? That’s news orgs’ job.

@steveouting Why do multi-night coverage? Gee, I thought TDS considered this to be important.

@steveouting Again, it may have covered night-of vote, but how sustained was TDS’s coverage?

A commenter below has left links to some previous Daily Show mentions of the first responders bill mess, but they won’t work in Canada.

Mon, December 27 2010 » Main Page, Media, politics