Thursday, March 19, 2009

Is Jon Stewart Hurting America?

Remember when Jon Stewart went on the old Crossfire show? He had a simple request of the program's two doofy hosts:

"Stop hurting America."

Stewart's appearance helped kill the CNN show. Not a great loss for political discourse, although its death and that of related programs left a void soon filled by a series of ideologically-focused, single-person programs. You know the gang: O'Reilly, Dobbs, Grace, Olbermann, Hannity, etc. So in the long run I'm not so sure killing Crossfire was a good thing, given what happened next, but there was no way to know that at the time.

And then, of course, Cramer came to town.

Stewart spent days blasting CNBC and star Jim Cramer, the entertaining and crazed stock pick guy. Finally Cramer appears on The Daily Show and the result is ugly for Cramer. Everyone agrees. I'm not gonna spend time putting in links for stuff we've all watched over and over again.

Many agree that Stewart was probably unfair to CNBC. He got away with selective editing of video, funny-as-hell juxtapositions, and some telling journalistic work that shows Cramer describing how to cheat the system.

And Stewart always gets away with criticism by the same dodge -- I'm a comedian.

Stewart is more than a mere comedian. His show often sets the news agenda. Whether that's a good thing or not is another matter, but it remains a fact of life, and one Stewart can no longer avoid by joking about being on Comedy Central or the program that leads into his program or with a funny face or sniffing himself. He is part of the meta-media: mainstream news and bloggers and video sites and, yes, The Daily Show. His interviews with authors and celebrities are some of the best on TV. His comments are picked up by CNN and all the rest.

He'd say that says something bad about news organizations, but if what he's doing at 11 p.m. every night becomes water cooler talk the next morning, then it becomes news, and he's now a player.

So is Jon Stewart hurting America? Maybe. A little.

But then again, who isn't?

There is some suggestion that people who watch his program become more cynical, less trusting. Less naive? Does watching parody and satire fill us with empty news calories so we don't consume serious news? Does news now have to be funny? Sugar in all our medicine?

Can you be a player, but avoid being a player? Yes, Stewart is having his cake and eating it too, and time's up.

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