The Role and Impact of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Taking Satire Seriously On A "Daily Show" Basis

By Matthew E. Popkin
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 11/12 |

The Daily Show’s ability to reveal hypocrisy is essential to fostering more honest and open discourse. In order to do that, though, people must take notice of the show’s efforts. The New York Times online blog, for instance, promoted the Postcards from the Pledge clip, prompting comments and attention from Internet users.93 Former Vice President Al Gore took notice of a video that presented Dick Cheney’s blatant hypocrisy. Gore valued it enough to even reference it in one of his recent books about the how politics of fear and secrecy have impacted rational discourse:

“Vice President Cheney lashed out at The New York Times for having the nerve to print a headline declaring PANEL FINDS NO QAEDA-IRAQ TIE – which was by then merely a clear statement of the obvious. Piling one falsehood on top of another, Cheney then said that there was no “fundamental split here and now between what the president said and what the commission said.” He even tried to deny that he had ever personally been responsible for helping to create the false impression that there was linkage between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Appropriately enough, his interview ended up as fodder for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart played Cheney’s outright denial that he had ever said that representatives of al-Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence met in Prague, and then Stewart froze Cheney’s image and played the exact video clip when Cheney had indeed said exactly that in exactly the words he had denied. He caught him on videotape in a blatant lie. At that point, Stewart said, addressing himself to Cheney’s frozen image on the television screen, “It’s my duty to inform you that your pants are on fire.””94

Clips often now serve as reference sources for politicians, authors, and members of the media for their own purposes. Whether it is to expose certain irrationalities or to just mock, the clips educate, albeit pessimistically, about the political process as a whole. Nevertheless, the outcome is a more aware public that presumably will translate into a more accountable government.

From conservative political commentators to Democratic presidents, Stewart seeks to point out hypocrisy wherever it exists. Despite its liberal leanings, The Daily Show, when presented with an opportunity to expose hypocrisy within the political system, does not exempt the Democrats and liberal news figures from criticism either. Hypocrisy from any perspective only prevents honest debate from taking place, and by holding influential figures accountable for their statements, The Daily Show will likely reduce inconsistency and duplicity, thereby improving the accountability of the political process and government.

Issue Advocacy: 9/11 First Responders Health Care Bill

In a fascinating foray into the legislative policy debate, The Daily Show was a vital factor in the passage of the bill providing health care to 9/11 first responders. Starting in August 2010, with a lengthy video segment devoted to criticizing both parties for failing to pass the bill, The Daily Show reprimanded opponents of the bill.95 However, when the bill failed that summer, the fate of the bill became unknown. During the lame-duck legislative session that year, the Democrats brought it up for debate once again, but again other issues received the spotlight and priority.

From the beginning of December 2010, The Daily Show ridiculed the senators who opposed the bill. The national debate at the time was dominated by the Republican demand that the Bush-era tax cuts be extended for the wealthiest Americans before any other legislation was to be considered. Regardless, of one’s stand on the tax cuts issue, Stewart argued that it was ridiculous for the tax issue to be the moral obstacle preventing consideration of the 9/11 health care bill. Stewart affirmed that the 9/11 health care bill was “kind of a no-brainer politically and… morally – kind of the right thing to do.”96

In the middle of December, approaching the end of the congressional session, there were low expectations for the bill’s passage. The Daily Show devoted its entire last show of the year, on December 16th, to advocating for the passage of the 9/11 health care bill. The first segment chastised the bill’s opponents and lack of media coverage: “None of the three broadcast networks [(NBC, CBS, and ABC)] have mentioned any of this on their evening newscasts for two and a half months, although, to be fair, it’s not every day that Beatles songs come to iTunes.”97 He also derided Fox News, despite the network’s typical passion on 9/11-related injustices, for not adequately covering the issue and the Republican filibuster of the bill. In the second part of the show, Stewart discussed the issue directly with four emergency first responders from September 11th, 2001 who were suffering from significant medical problems directly related to their rescue efforts.98 The episode concluded with an interview with Mike Huckabee in which both Stewart and Huckabee discussed the bipartisan nature of the issue and urged the Republican senators to support the bill.99

The episode marked an important point for The Daily Show, not only because it was one of the few episodes dedicated to a single issue, but also because of the direct impact that it had on the national debate. On December 20, 2010 The Daily Show was acknowledged by TIME as having lit a fire under the issue, with the news networks covering the issue more closely, an increase in Senate action with newfound optimism, and Chris Wallace of Fox News deeming the lack of action a “national shame.”100 Sheppard Smith of Fox News also noted the importance of The Daily Show on the lack of bipartisan support:

“But both sides didn’t come to the same page after the tax deal went through. Both sides came to the same page when Jon Stewart did an entire hour – his last hour of the year – on this and brought on people who were dying. And it took that to get this done… to even get people to talk about it.”101

The legislation finally passed the Senate on December 22nd, and in an article in The New York Times that day, Stewart was cited as having brought “national attention” to the bill.102 CBS News further reported that both White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Senator Chuck Schumer credited Stewart with generating the necessary attention to and awareness of the bill.103 In The New York Times a week later, New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, remarked on Stewart’s pressure:

“Success always has a thousand fathers, but Jon shining such a big, bright spotlight on Washington’s potentially tragic failure to put aside differences and get this done for America was, without a doubt, one of the biggest factors that led to the final agreement.”104

The Times subsequently classified Stewart’s efforts as “advocacy journalism,” drawing comparisons to the journalistic activism of Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite.105 Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Senator and leading advocate for the bill, appeared on The Daily Show the following January and amidst the discussion, strongly contended that the show made a difference and that Stewart “put a spotlight on an issue and… amplified the work of all the first responders.”106

Without a doubt, The Daily Show was integral in reviving the necessary passion and support for passing the 9/11 health care bill. The show utilized its existing reach and likely exceeded its expectations for the amount of public and media attention it received. Issue advocacy to such an extent was a new approach for Stewart and The Daily Show team. Although Stewart had previously advocated for changes in public discourse, supporting a specific piece of legislation at such a level was an entirely new pursuit. It was virtually unheard of for Stewart to champion a specific policy and to receive such acknowledgement for his dedication to and pressure for the issue.

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