Come clean, Jon Stewart: you're an activist, journalist and a comedian

<em>The Daily Show</em> host is beginning to face up to the fact that he is more than a comic - whet

When I suggested earlier this week that Jon Stewart had been put on the spot during an interview on Fox with Chris Wallace, commenters - and indeed colleagues - argued that I had read the interview wrong. I thought Stewart looked flustered when Wallace argued that Stewart relies too much on the "I'm a comedian" defence. They argued that Stewart's response - "When did I say that I am only a comedian? I said I am comedian first" - showed that Wallace's criticism was false.

I still don't think it did, but it does reveal that something has changed in Stewart's physche. He's finally coming round to the fact that he is more than a comedian, whether he wants to be or not.

Until that interview, Stewart had always implied that because The Daily Show was a comedy show on a comedy channel, it shouldn't be taken that seriously. Watch the video of him on CROSSFIRE, or previous interviews on Fox. Indeed, moments before the "comedian first" comment in the Wallace interview, Stewart said: "I'm not an activist. I'm a comedian."

That is hogwash. There's a simple reason why some people think Stewart is an activist: he does things like organise mass rallies in the middle of Washington DC. Indeed, here's how Stewart described the "Rally to Restore Sanity" when he went on Fox in September last year:

The folks that I see in my gigs that I go out to are real Americans, plumbers and such. They tell me that they don't feel represented by the extremities they see on things like Fox News and other things like that. They say the real voice of the people has been muted by the extremists, that the loudest voices are the ones that seem to carry the day. So what I'm hearing is they want to feel a catharsis that they are not alone, that they're also represented. So that's why we are doing it. We are trying to find that thin sliver of America between pinhead and patriot.

That, to me, sounds like activism, rather than comedy.

Stewart is a comedian, but a lot of what The Daily Show does is journalism - with jokes. Stewart, finally, seems to have accepted that he is not "only a comedian". This is a step forward. Stewart needs to accept that he is an activist and a journalist, and then The Daily Show can get on with being the best news-based show on television.

That Stewart's show is regularly cited as one of the most trusted news sources in the US is not just evidence of the US's lousy news culture; it is an indication of the show's strength. The Daily Show investigates and digs out hypocrisy among both the media and politicians better than many news channel and newspapers. There is no reason, then, that The Daily Show can't be both a news show and a comedy show. Good satire informs and entertains.

Whether he wants to be or not, however, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show are being yanked from the cushy, cocoon of "comedy" into "infotainment". This is not necessarily a bad thing. In Britain, Private Eye straddles the spheres of comedy and journalism perfectly. Why can't The Daily Show?

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Why is it getting harder to report on Israel-Palestine?

The politics of the conflict are changing – and with them, the diplomatic and journalistic challenge.

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem’s Old City has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and conquerors. This week it has been the focus of renewed media attention after a series of violent incidents.  For those ties of history, politics, and faith which link it to the rest of the world have also made it a magnet for reporters: some admired, more abused or admonished.     

Last summer, Israel’s international image took a beating. Some two thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed during the Israeli Army’s operation in Gaza. Israeli casualties – at more than 70, almost all of them military personnel – had been far higher than in other incursions into Gaza in recent years. 

As the dust settled above the flattened buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a news conference specifically aimed at the foreign press.

It was aimed at them in that they were both the audience, and the target. Mr Netanyahu said, “I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.”

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz challenged Mr Netanyahu’s claim in a story headlined “Foreign Press: Hamas Didn't Censor Us in Gaza, They Were Nowhere to Be Found”. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor echoed this when we spoke for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “They’re all hiding,” he remembered of his experience of Hamas during that that conflict. “They had a spokesman who hung out at Shifa hospital. And he was very much a spokesman. He didn’t tell us what to do.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been covered by countless words and hours of airtime. It has also exhausted extensive diplomatic resources seeking to solve it. The diplomatic desert seems almost to have led to a situation where PR is a substitute for policy. Take Mr Netanyahu’s attempts, above, to rubbish reporting. Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted, and later removed, a cartoon sneering at, and patronising, the foreign press. Why bother with politics, when you can poke fun?

The politics, though, are changing – and with them, the diplomatic challenge.

Religion is playing a growing role. Daniel Kurtzer was United States ambassador to Tel Aviv 2001-2005. He was also there as a diplomat in the 1980s. Then, he remembers “a fostering of the idea of Islamism as an antidote to nationalism. The natural consequence of that was and has been the growth of religious feelings, so certainly on the Palestinian side that’s the case, but it’s even now grown on the Israeli side”. He concludes: “I haven’t seen any success yet in integrating this move towards religion into the diplomacy of trying to resolve the conflict. It’s a real challenge.”

It is a challenge for correspondents, too – and their efforts are rarely admired. Shortly before the bloodshed in Gaza began, the head of Israel’s government press office, Nitzan Chen, shared with me his opinion of foreign correspondents in Israel. “Like the Israeli journalists, they are cynical, critical. I don’t want to make generalisations because some people are very professional and very unique, see the facts before they write the story. But the majority are lazy.”

Anyone covering the conflict needs a thick skin, and sometimes more. In addition to the risks involved in covering all armed conflict, conversations with Palestinian journalists will often quickly uncover stories of harassment and threats of violence from armed groups. 

The brevity of daily news stories means they rarely have room for discussion of religion, or   competing historical narratives. Yet, for all its shortcomings, real and imagined, the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian press is most people’s only source of information about a conflict which has connections to so many parts of the world. If it were not important, presumably the protagonists would not waste time criticising it.      

James Rodgers is the author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just published by Palgrave MacMillan. He was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004. James will be taking part in a panel discussion next week at City University London. You can register to attend here