Recently, Bill O'Reilly had Jon Stewart on his show to comment on Stewart's statements that Fox News was hypocritical in it's lambasting of rapper Common coming to the White House to recite poetry. This is not the first time that O'Reilly and Stewart have verbally dueled and if they continue to comment on the same events, it is not likely to be the last. I recommend watching the exchange as it is both energetic and full of insight.
Who came out the better in the interview, I'll let you make up your own mind. Many felt it was Stewart, others feel O'Reilly and that's not shocking. What is shocking, however, is how some people react to Stewart's intellectual and reasoned response.
"You know that Stewart's a comedian, right?"
The reason this question is shocking is not that it assumes ignorance on the part of the one being questioned. It is not that it is ridiculous on it's face for the fact that The Daily Show, Stewart's platform from which to dispense commentary, is popular and even influential. It's that this question is there for one purpose: to dismiss.
Stewart is a satirist, a parody of a news journalist. The Daily Show started as sort of an extended version of the SNL News, but over time and with a change of host (Stewart is the show's second) The Daily Show changed into something more than a way to get cheap laughs. It became poignant.
After 9/11, there was a time we seemed afraid to laugh. Some of the first entertainers to speak openly about what the country was experiencing were comedians. Jay Leno pledged to try to take our mind off of the grim News. The Onion ran stories that were both irreverent and bold, spitting in the eye of despair. And for about two weeks, I remember watching The Daily Show, not for the comedy, but because Jon Stewart was willing to step forward and speak to America as a person and a New Yorker, not only communicating his personal anguish, but bringing on real political figures to speak about the matters at hand.
The Daily Show started not just making fun of the news, but became a venue for Americans to get real news in an entertaining way.
As the mood lifted, Stewart used a sharp tongue and a sharp wit to tear into the Bush administration, to call out Congressmen on both sides of the aisle and to cover some of the more silly aspects of our culture. The celebrities doing press junket's for their movies and the authors returned to the interview portion of the show, but still Stewart has sat down with some of the most influential people in our government, past and present, and asked serious questions, expected serious answers and stood toe to toe with commentators for whom journalism came first, showmanship later.
Political satire has been part of the political process pretty much as long as there have been politics. In ancient Rome, in the courts of Celtic Kings, in the shadows of Monarch's castles and through every recorded political movement, there have been those who have communicated and countered the policies of their rulers with humor. When the stability of your government depended highly upon your personal credibility, this was a major power to wield.
Even now, where the government is based more on the rule of law than on the reputation of any one man, a few words can turn an effective politician into a laughing stock.
What this means is that yes, we must to confuse journalists with a duty to inform with entertainers with a duty to entertain. But also, we must not think we can dismiss a funny man because he is funny. Stewart and The Daily Show writers have dispensed some of the most clear, insightful commentary on our political process that has been said on the air over the past decade.
Yes, we know that Jon Stewart is a comedian. But don't think that means you can dismiss him. It may, in fact, mean that he is one of the most dangerous men in the political arena today. After all... only the Jester gets to speak his mind to the King without fear of reprisal.