Perhaps more than any other satirist, Stewart commands the attention—and respect—of folks in the “real” media. New Yorker editor David Remnick and PBS’ Moyers consider him an important media critic. The Daily Show’s trademark editing technique of playing back-to-back clips of politicians contradicting themselves has garnered that highest form of flattery: imitation by the very networks Stewart mocks.
Nevertheless, Stewart insists that he and his staff are just a bunch of “monkeys making jokes.” In particular, he dismisses suggestions that The Daily Show aims to do anything more than make people laugh. On October 15, 2004, when he went on CNN’s Crossfire—a then-popular target of The Daily Show because of its screaming matches between pundits—Stewart begged hosts Paul Begala, a former Clinton advisor, and Tucker Carlson, the young bow-tied conservative journalist, to “stop hurting America” with their “partisan hackery.” Carlson would have none of it. He pushed back, attacking Stewart for a softball interview with Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
An incredulous Stewart responded by reminding Carlson that their shows were not in the same category. “You’re on CNN,” he said. “The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.” The exchange was a YouTube sensation, and Stewart was tagged the winner; few disagreed with his statement that something is really wrong with the fourth estate if, as he put it, “news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.”
“Stewart panders exclusively” to his liberal, young audience, insists Carlson, now at MSNBC: “He’s a show for the Democratic Party. He sucks up to power rather than confront it.” Stewart’s interviewing style has been called into question by his admirers as well. Lately, there have been instances where Stewart has been a more aggressive interviewer, squaring off with McCain and Blair over the Iraq war. But it is unrealistic to expect comedians to carry out the job of newsmen, says Syracuse University’s Thompson. “Jon Stewart is not a journalist. He doesn’t claim to be, and when he says he’s not we should believe it. His interviews are in the tradition of Johnny Carson. Basically he’s polite, at times deferential. He behaves in the interviews like a well-brought-up young man.”
Stewart denies that The Daily Show has a political agenda. His Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert—whose mock Bill O’Reilly persona on The Daily Show led to a spin-off created by Stewart’s Busboys Productions called The Colbert Report—views Stewart as an equal-opportunity satirist. “Jon is admirably balanced,” Colbert has said, explaining that Stewart always tries to get at the “the true intention of the person speaking, left or right” in order “to be able to honestly mock.”
Stewart makes no secret of his impatience with President Bush, known on the show by the superhero moniker “The Decider” or as “Still President Bush.” Stewart recently told The New York Times that he is looking forward to the end of the Bush era “as a comedian, as a person, as a citizen, as a mammal.” But perhaps out of respect for his comedian-cum-journalist role and unlike other comedians like Silverman, an activist for Democrats, and Jackie Mason, an outspoken Republican, he stays somewhat mum about his own political preferences, although it is clear that he leans Democrat. (The only documented recipient of his financial largesse is New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat and Big Apple mayoral candidate, with whom Stewart roomed after college.)
A Pew study analyzed the show’s content during the summer and fall of 2007 and concluded that “Stewart’s humor targeted Republicans more than three times as often as Democrats. The Bush administration alone was the focus of 22 percent of the segments.” Although this percentage is likely to change when a Democratic administration comes to power, Democrats do not escape his tongue-lashing, even if it is to criticize them for not being democratic enough. There is a sort of liberal angst in his characterizations of Democrats as “at best ewoks,” a reference to cuddly, somewhat hapless Star Wars creatures.
In the run-up to the 2004 elections, Stewart indicated that he would vote for John Kerry. Although no one imagines that Stewart cast a vote for McCain, who supports the Iraq war, McCain was a guest on the show 13 times, far more than either Clinton or Obama. Many of McCain’s guest spots were via satellite from his Straight Talk Express bus during low points in his primary campaign, providing him with much needed media exposure. “John McCain is someone for whom I have great respect,” Stewart told Larry King last February.