The host of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart, went onto Fox News Sunday last night. This, in itself, isn’t really big news. Stewart regularly appears on the network and exchanges matey banter with the sometimes insane Bill O’Reilly. The formula is pretty standard whenever Stewart goes into enemy territory. The Fox News host accuses him of being the doyen of mainstream liberal bias, before Stewart declares: “Hey, I’m a comedian! Don’t take me seriously.”
This time, however, was a little different. Jon Stewart reeled out the same lines as usual (he’s a comedian working on a comedy show, not a news anchor on a news show, etc. etc.) but Wallace was ready for them, pointing to a Baltimore Sun critic who recently wrote: “When [Stewart] is wrong, he goes into the tap dance of saying he’s only a comedian and shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
This stumped Stewart momentarily. A raw nerve touched, Wallace dug his finger in a little deeper. “Honestly, I think you want to be a political player,” said Wallace with a smirk.
Rather than laugh it off – like a comedian – Stewart seemed riled. “You’re wrong. You are wrong,” he replied sternly. Wallace then continued to poke, arguing that Fox was simply an antidote to mainstream liberal bias. This seemed to get to Stewart, who shot back, rather too forcefully: “Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox, Fox viewers. Consistently, every poll.”
Wallace then ruined what threatened to be an interesting debate by pointing to a clip of a “comedy roast” skit broadcast elsewhere on Stewart’s network and a joke involving Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s penis, which rather let the Daily Show host off the hook. “It’s not exactly masterpiece theatre,” argued Wallace. “You’re the counterbalance to that. I’m suggesting that there is bias and you only tell part of the story.” (Presumably because the joke focussed only on their sex video, rather than the break-up of their ill-fated marriage.)
Before this, however, the interview highlighted Stewart’s awkward, and rather unique, position in the US media. Stewart might not want to be seen as a politcal player or a news anchor, but his comedy makes him so. His comedy is ideological and political – and that is why it’s good. But the form it takes – a mock news show, that reacts to current affairs – blurs the lines between journalism and comedy. Likewise, events such as last year’s “Rally for Sanity” cloud the issue further. The “I’m a comedian” defence is getting old. He is a part of US news culture, whether he wants to be or not. The Daily Show is infotainment with great jokes. The sooner Stewart accepts that, and stops relying on the comedian defence, the better.