In Defense of the Comedian as Journalist

Jon Stewart's recent rant against—and subsequent interview with—Mad Money's Jim Cramer was the latest incident of a comedian to initiate a thoughtful debate on a headline-grabbing issue. In this age of hybrid media, the debate now is over what role political satire should play in framing contemporary politics.

Today, when a prominent politician is ruined by scandal he is grilled by a comedian, as was the case of the immensely popular Letterman-Blagojevich face off. Such is the reality of today's brand of political humor where personalities are so popular and their shows so influential that The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher and the late-night talk show circuit are regular visits on any publicity tour. No longer are laughs the only priority or are hosts merely comics. They're hybrids--equal parts pundit, comedian and journalist--who engage with provocative ideas and ask the questions traditional journalists won't. This isn't new. Although David Frost wasn't a comedian, he was an entertainment reporter until he joined the stage with Richard Nixon. George Carlin made a career of pointing out the hypocrisies of politics and societal excess. Chevy Chase's characterization of Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live was perhaps the first time a joke hurt both the feelings and ratings of a president. Today, YouTube just spreads the word farther and faster. While Carlin's rants were seen on the occasional HBO special, Jon Stewart's commentary is seen on the nightly news and the frontpage of the Times. The Saturday Night Live characterizations du jour--Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, Amy Poehler's Hillary Clinton--are seen live and then millions of times over when it goes viral. The biggest impact of this kind of visibility has been that politicians now make a more deliberate effort to be a part of the joke instead of just the butt of it. And it's built a powerful pulpit for hosts like Stewart and Maher to influence national debates and advance their own agendas. The question now is whether a line should be drawn between comedy and news journalism. Without one, blurred boundaries can confuse and mislead: What's the takeaway from a joke that simultaneously criticizes Sarah Palin for her position on global warming and her beauty queen background? To their credit, Stewart and Maher are knowledgeable and exceptionally prepared for guests, often, it seems, more than network anchormen. And it's clear their interests are bigger than punchlines. Real Time features a diverse, three-person panel of public figures—authors, journalists, politicians and experts—who are invited into an equal forum to debate all perspectives of current events. Stewart is less inviting of ideologies with which he disagrees. While a slew of conservative personalities have come on The Daily Show, they usually serve as little more than set-ups to jokes than as respected contrarians.  Yet as a jokester, he thrives. Stewart regularly offers sound bytes from his interviews that make it into the news cycle, as with the CNBC/Jim Cramer segments. Another memorable segment was an exchange in which Stewart responded to an answer by Mike Huckabee in December about gay rights:


Stewart: "I think it's the difference between what you believe gay people are and what I do. And I live in New York city so I'm just going to make a supposition that I have more experience being around them. And I'll tell you this: Religion is far more a choice than homosexuality."Huckabee: "If the American people aren't convinced that we should overturn the definition of marriage then I would say that those who support the idea of same-sex marriage have a lot of work to do to convince the rest of us." Stewart: "You know, you talk about the pro life movement being one of the great shames of our nation. I think if you want number two, I think it's that. I think it's a travesty that people have forced someone who is gay to have to make their case that they deserve the same basic rights as someone else." 

Stewart thoughtfully expresses liberal outrage while keeping the debate civility and wit. Perhaps this is the key for what makes the non-journalist more effective at probing his subject—the disregard for objectivity and the steady pursuit of humor. So here's a question: Who would big thinkers rather see interview Bernie Madoff, Jon Stewart or Mike Wallace? Both would attack a deserving villain, but only Stewart could make us giggle while he does it.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

Videos
  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less
Image source: Topical Press Agency / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Though we know today that his policies eventually ended the Great Depression, FDR's election was seen as disastrous by some.
  • A group of wealthy bankers decided to take things into their own hands; they plotted a coup against FDR, hoping to install a fascist dictator in its stead.
  • Ultimately, the coup was brought to light by General Smedley Butler and squashed before it could get off the ground.
Keep reading Show less

Health care: Information tech must catch up to medical marvels

Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, believes we're entering the age of smart medicine.

Photo: Tom Werner / Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The United States health care system has much room for improvement, and big tech may be laying the foundation for those improvements.
  • Technological progress in medicine is coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology.
  • As information technology develops, patients will become active participants in their health care, and value-based care may become a reality.
Keep reading Show less