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. 8/12 |

Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich is also a frequent guest on The Daily Show. Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, is a prominent vocal conservative and regular commentator on Fox News programs. Gingrich is a regularly mocked political figure on The Daily Show, and a statement of his was even used in a video segment earlier in the very episode in which Gingrich was being interviewed.73

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Newt Gingrich Interview

As with the Huckabee interview, the level of discourse is not very extreme and the conversation is intricate and thought-provoking. Although Stewart and Gingrich make some jabs at each other, with Stewart mocking Gingrich quite overtly at times, they are able to substantively discuss the current political situation, the dilemma of terrorism and constitutional rights, and the debate about military tribunals versus the civilian court system for terrorists. Despite the strong opinions on both sides, the interview is not a shouting match, but a mere conversation.

While most of the interview is a spirited debate between the two, there is one particular moment where Stewart mockingly criticizes Gingrich. When questioned by Stewart about his characterization of the Obama administration’s position on terrorist rights, Gingrich states “Putting the rights of terrorists legally ahead of figuring out how to save Americans is seen by most Americans to be a fairly radical redefinition.”74 Stewart, though, rejects Gingrich’s framing of the Obama administration’s view and his characterization of the policy as ‘radical,’ claiming that Gingrich framed the issue in a “very emotional” manner sarcastically adding that Gingrich “[should not] let reality get in the way.”75 While Stewart’s mockery momentarily detracts from the quality of the conversation, it emphasizes his disconcert about the provocative rhetoric that has been employed by Gingrich and many other political figures – on both sides of the issue. In order to decrease misleading rhetoric in serious political and social issues, Stewart questions the use of such characterizations.

The series of Jim Cramer interviews, the Huckabee interview, and the Gingrich interview all exemplify the quality of serious discourse for which The Daily Show strives. The latter two convey Stewart’s desire to increase debate over controversial issues in a rational and less partisan fashion. Two additional interview examples below offer slightly different approaches that Stewart has taken to produce high quality interviews.

John Yoo & Marc Thiessen

John Yoo is a former law professor and a constitutional lawyer. Yoo worked for the United States Department of Justice under President George W. Bush and, as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General, drafted what became known as the “Torture Memos” – a set of legal documents that expanded executive prerogative to allow for enhanced interrogation techniques on enemy combatants. In a twenty-six minute three-part interview, Stewart questioned Yoo extensively in an attempt to unravel and comprehend the complexities of Yoo’s justifications for the enhanced interrogation techniques.76

This was by no means a relaxed and humorous interview. Stewart challenged the logic of the justification for the enhanced interrogation techniques, often exploring with Yoo complicated topics such as constitutional and international law, executive authority, torture, past presidential actions, the War Powers Act, checks and balances, and Yoo’s own role in the process. Yoo was an expert in constitutional law, while Stewart, having no legal education or experience, had merely read a few legal briefs in preparation – an obvious disparity between the two men’s knowledge and background on the issue. It was an unusual situation, with Stewart not being able to openly debate many of the legal technicalities. To compensate, Stewart attempted to discern the justifications as the interview progressed, pointing out inconsistencies in the thought process when possible.

In the case of Marc Thiessen, a political commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Stewart had a much more heated debate regarding torture, the lawful representation of detainees, the complex nature of national security and safety, and the morality of the enhanced interrogation techniques. Thiessen and Stewart each vied for control of the argument throughout the thirty-two minute extended interview.77

In an effort to hold the Bush administration accountable for its highly controversial interrogation policies, Stewart, constantly challenged the Thiessen’s arguments. Stewart, as he did with Jim Cramer, utilized the Internet as a forum for discussion and contemplation. Instead of being constrained by a strict television airtime contract, Stewart continued the discussion in extended interview segments so that a more complex and intricate conversation regarding the legality of enhanced interrogation techniques and executive power during wartime could ensue. Ross Douthat, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, remarked that “Stewart’s series of debates on torture and interrogation policy, in particular — featuring John Yoo and Marc Thiessen, among others — have been more substantive than anything on Fox or MSNBC.”78 Despite the legal complexities of both discussions, Stewart contributed greatly to the American democracy by bringing extensive public scrutiny to controversial national security policies.

Furthermore, though the tensions were much higher with Thiessen, Stewart concluded the interview with Yoo on better terms with the following statement:

“I always like to think that it’s very easy to demonize people and actions, and it’s always important to sit in front of them and have as honest a discussion and as real a discussion as you can… I hope that people take away from it at least a certain human struggle that everybody faces in these difficult situations to do what they think is best for the country, whether there are disagreements or not, and not to demonize those actions on one side or the other – because that is way too easy these days… I disagree with certain things, and I appreciate you coming by to discuss them.”79

This reasonable appeal for civility represents the general theme of the majority of the interviews that Stewart conducts. Whether it is Dick Armey, the leader of the Tea Party movement, or Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Stewart seeks to have a candid and open conversation with those with whom he agrees and disagrees address the “human struggle that everybody faces” at one time or another. Civility is a constant theme of The Daily Show, and Stewart attempts to improve the quality of discourse and move beyond the strong sentiments that regularly pervade controversial social, political, and moral debates.

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