Jonathan Stewart Lebowitz, also known as Jon Stewart, is a political satirist, writer, TV host, actor, media critic and standup comedian. Since 1999, this multi-talented American figure has become best known for hosting The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Stewart was ranked fifth in Newsweek’s top 50 power profiles, with annual earnings of $15 million.
Because of his comedy, Stewart has been able—according to his critics—to assail politics and media from the comfort of his “fake news” desk. Stewart counters that he is neither a politician nor a journalist. In a recent interview on National Public Radio (NPR), Stewart said: “I think it made me less political and more emotional. The [more] you spend time with the political [world] and media, the less political you become and the more viscerally upset you become at corruption.”
According to Stewart, it is not politicians who irritate him as much as media. “I’m less upset with politicians than [with] the media,” he said. “The way I explain it, is when you go to a zoo and a monkey throws feces, it’s a monkey. But when the zookeeper is standing right there and he doesn’t say, ‘Bad monkey’—somebody’s gotta be the zookeeper. I feel much more strongly about the abdication of responsibility by the media than by political advocates.”
In September 2004, Stewart asked then-CNN personality Tucker Carlson and his co-host Paul Begala to “stop hurting America.” He described their show, Crossfire, as a “partisan hack” and ridiculed how its name implicitly referenced innocent bystander victims of street shootings. Despite having been invited on the program to comment on current events, Stewart shifted the discussion toward the show itself, saying that Crossfire had failed in its responsibility to inform and educate viewers about politics as a serious topic.
Stewart said that the hosts’ assertion that their show was a debate show was like “saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition.” Carlson countered by saying that Stewart criticizes news organizations for not holding public officials accountable, but when he interviewed presidential candidate John Kerry, Stewart asked a series of “softball” questions. Stewart responded that he didn’t realize “the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.” When Carlson continued to press his guest, Stewart said: “You’re on CNN! The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls! What is wrong with you?” In response to prods from Carlson, “Come on. Be funny,” Stewart said, “No, I’m not going to be your monkey.”
In January 2005, CNN announced that it was canceling Crossfire. When asked about the cancellations, CNN officials referenced Stewart’s appearance on the show and criticized “the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day.” Stewart later commented on the cancellation of Crossfire by saying: “I fought the law, and the law lost!”
In December 2010, Stewart hosted a group of 9/11 first responders who—because of their rescue operations on Ground Zero—had to exhale poisonous debris and have been facing health problems ever since. In Congress, the Republicans had been holding the money allocated for the support of these responders by obstructing the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. After voicing their appeal on The Daily Show, America sympathized with the responders and the Republicans in Congress were forced to let go of their hold.
Despite being a mere comedian, Jon Stewart has—even if unintentionally—become a progressive political force to reckon with. During the rundown to the November 2010 Congressional elections, he organized a rally to “Restore Sanity” in Washington. Stewart insisted that his activity was for comedy purposes only, but the timing of the rally, when rightwing activists were mobilized while their left wing counterparts were demoralized, suggested that Jon Stewart and his protégé, Stephen Colbert, intended to give the Democrats a hand in elections.
The Republicans humiliated the Democrats in 2010 and won the majority in the House, but not the Senate. The effects of the Stewart-Colbert rally were clearly insignificant on the national level. However, the rally itself, Stewart’s shrill cry against the media and his illumination of laws stalking in Congress, suggest that this remarkable satirist has sometimes shrewdly used his popularity to influence politics, something that certainly will not make him any less popular with his followers, admirers and America at large.
Published: Wednesday 16 February 2011 Updated: Wednesday 16 February 2011