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. 9/12 |

President Barack Obama

On October 27, 2010, in what was perhaps one of the most anticipated episodes of The Daily Show, Barack Obama came on the program for the second time. This time, however, he was not Senator Obama campaigning for President – he was President. This was one of the most unique episodes as well. The entire episode was an interview with the President, and Stewart, though a comic, conducted the interview very seriously. Throughout the interview, Stewart and Obama discussed the first 18 months of Obama’s term in office focusing on the political process and obstacles, the health care bill, the high rhetoric of the campaign, and the work still remaining.80

Stewart deftly questioned the President on specific issues. However, Obama was ready to defend himself on issues of the economy, unemployment, his campaign rhetoric, and his policy record. The two have a light conversation at times, but they also have a respectful and substantive discussion, in which each challenged the other. President Obama strongly defended his decisions and policies, at times getting frustrated with Stewart. Obama held his ground when challenged, and he refuted Stewart in a very rational manner when he disagreed. Stewart, who usually has the upper hand in his interviews, was not nearly as in control of the discussion, constantly having to adjust to ensure respect while challenging the President. The value of the interview was in the conversation itself; it was not just a question and answer session; it was a candid conversation with and about the highest official in the country.

Prior to and after the interview, President Obama was criticized for potentially diminishing the value of the Office of the President by appearing on a late-night comedy show. On the contrary, Obama had no intention of doing such a thing and had his own reasons for going on the program. After his first appearance on The Daily Show in 2007, when asked by CBS News why he went on a comedy show, President Obama responded, “Jon is able to break through some of the silliness of the campaign season, and, in a way, you actually end up being more truthful and end up talking more substance on a show like this than you do sometimes on some of these other shows.”81

Extended Interviews Conclusion

Jon Stewart utilizes The Daily Show interview forums as his own way of advancing the quality of political discourse. Stewart, when seeking a challenge, invites guests who are controversial or with whom he disagrees. The Pew Research Study notes that in 2007, of the guests with an obvious political ideology, “15 had ties to the political right and 18 to the left.”82 The study qualifies the data, however, and asserts that “on a number of occasions, Stewart seems to challenge his conservative guests more harshly than those with liberal viewpoints.”83 The Pew Study offers a few explanations for the different approaches Stewart takes with different guests from the show’s liberal leanings to the potential anti-establishment agenda. However, what seems more plausible is that Stewart wishes to improve the national conversation. Instead of arguing for the sake of arguing or preaching to the choir with guests with whom he agrees, Stewart challenges himself by engaging in honest discussion with prominent figures who disagree with him.

The Daily Show interviews range from light promotional discussions to heavy political and philosophical discussions. Nonetheless, given his critique of Crossfire, Stewart may very well hope to lead by example with his own interviews. By allowing for discussion to continue beyond airtime, Stewart is not constrained by television contracts, commercials, or time. Especially when talking with politicians or political commentators, this flexible format discourages and minimizes mere talking points and sound bites and encourages more open, in-depth conversation. Douthat, of The New York Times, proposes, “[that] cable news needs… something more like what Stewart himself has been doing… Instead of bringing in the strategists, consultants and professional outrage artists who predominate on other networks, he ushers conservative commentators into his studio for conversations that are lengthy, respectful and often riveting.” 84 Geoffrey Baym adds, Stewart’s goal is not the “tearing down of the ‘other’ side… or some banal prediction of the shape of things to come, but rather an effort to gain greater understanding of national problems and their potential solutions.”85

Hypocrisy Critique

Thus far, I have demonstrated how The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has critiqued the news media and prominent media figures while providing its own avenues for substantive discussion. Yet, perhaps an even greater function that The Daily Show provides is its ability to expose hypocrisy. Stewart not only demonstrates the inconsistencies of politicians and political commentators, but also of the system itself. In a few of the previously referenced videos, such as “Fox News: The New Liberals” and “Gretchen Carlson Dumbs Down,” Stewart points out distinct hypocrisies in the logic of claims and in the specific statements of political figures.

Without direct comparison, viewers of news shows or those following politics are often unable to notice the hypocrisy, since it occurs at different times. Most people do not openly contradict themselves in the same few minutes of airtime they are given, though Glenn Beck does deserve some credit for pulling this off.86 The Daily Show, however, has the ability to juxtapose two statements by the same person at different times due to its expert use of video clips. Often devoting itself entirely to displaying the ridiculous hypocrisy present in political discussions, Stewart and The Daily Show team highlight contradictory public statements.

In the following example, multiple political commentators provide their insight regarding the criticism that Sarah Palin has been facing since she has become the Republican nominee for vice president:87

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Sarah Palin Gender Card

Stewart compares the statements of Karl Rove, a former advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to President Bush, on Governor Tim Kaine, to the statements of Karl Rove on Sarah Palin, showing a clear contradiction on the subject of leadership experience. Bill O’Reilly is shown criticizing those who criticize Sarah Palin for her daughter’s teen pregnancy, and he is then shown chastising the parents of Britney and Jamie Lynn Spears for Jamie Lynn’s teen pregnancy. Fox News commentator Dick Morris is presented openly contradicting himself on the issue of sexism. He criticizes Hillary Clinton for acting as a victim of sexism while he defends Sarah Palin against similar sexist comments about her. Stewart displays Senior McCain Policy Advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer exhibiting similar contradictions as Morris, going so far as to claim that the possibly sexist comments about Palin were some of the “most outrageous double standards” Pfotenhauer had ever seen. Stewart appropriately mocks her: “Really, one of the most outrageous double standards you’ve ever seen? I think I’ve got some clips you should see.”88 Essentially, The Daily Show team compiled and displayed the blatant hypocrisy of prominent political commentators.

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