Friday, December 31, 2010

Is Jon Stewart the new Edward R. Murrow?

There has been much ado recently, and justifiably so, about Jon Stewart's admirable advocacy in support of 9/11 First Responders, demanding passage of the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act and shaming both Congress (Democrats for not being aggressive enough and Republicans for obstructing the bill) and the news media (which, with the exception of Aljazeera, was neglecting the story entirely) into action.

Stewart has repeated denied that he is a political player, let alone a partisan, preferring to present himself as a comedian first and foremost, but there is no denying that he has become a major political figure. His rally with Colbert back at the end of October was a sign of his significant reach, but those of us who adore him, if I may put it so lovingly, have known about his influence for a long time. So, for that matter, have his critics.

While a huge fan, I have been deeply critical of Stewart's anti-partisan claims, and so, while supporting 9/11 First Reponders is hardly a partisan thing to do (even if Republicans like Tom Coburn made it partisan), I do welcome Stewart's aggressive foray into legislative politics. Without necessarily turning into an overt partisan, and without endangering his comedy (and his broad appeal across the left into the center, and especially with liberal-minded but independent young people), he should do more of it.

But the question is, is he, as no less an authority than the Times has suggested, the new Edward R. Murrow, the legendary journalist and CBS commentator who famously stood up to McCarthyism and, in the process, became the icon of journalism itself?

It's a silly question, in a way, even as it asks us to put Stewart into perspective, to figure out just what he's all about. No longer just a self-deprecating comedian with an obscure late-night cable faux news show appealing to collegiate stoners, Stewart has become a sort of icon himself, the essential progressive voice of the engaged but generally powerless, a voice speaking truth to political and media power, but doing so not as a member of the insider ranks, like Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow, but as a justifiably cynical outsider pointing out the very absurdity of it all while holding those on the inside to account, catching them in their various foibles, sometimes criminal, often unethical, usually counter to the public good.

If he isn't quite Murrow, it's because he refuses to be that serious, because he remains a comedian above all, and because, honestly, Murrow was a man of his time and place. In today's media landscape, a Murrow just isn't possible, just as, say, a Cronkite isn't possible. The world is too fractured for such a singular giant. Now it's all about granular niches and multiple platforms, not overarching media figures wielding immense influence on a limited number of channels, the entire nation tuned in.

But that doesn't mean the comparison is without merit. Murrow was a man of exceptional determination and courage. Stewart is much less sure of himself, and much more of a funny man who thrives on being out there on the fringe, poking fun at the establishment, but his willingness to take on the establishment even as he and his fans are laughing at it suggests a courage that is sorely lacking in American society today, both in politics and in the media. He may not have the revolutionary aims of a Julian Assange, but, then, neither did Murrow. And like Murrow, what Stewart is ultimately fighting for is for America to live up to its professed values and principles. He doesn't go about it quite the same way Murrow did, but the similarities are there.

For more on this, see this fine piece by Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic, which has influenced much of what I've written here. Here's part of it:

Jon Stewart may or may not be the most important journalist of the 21th Century -- it's early still, plus he'd have to cop to the label and I'm not sure he would. But it should be clear from this episode, if it somehow weren't before, that Stewart (Murrow-like, you might say) wields enormous power and prestige through the medium of television (and the Internet). He showed it this fall with his well-attended Washington rally, he shows it each week with his ratings among younger viewers and the nation's political elite, and he clearly raised his game a notch with his searing light on how official Washington was screwing up the responders' health bill. I give credit to the Times and others for at least trying to cover that aspect of this story. The comparison to Murrow, which came off as facile in the Times piece, has some merit. It just wasn't explained well enough. Nor, alas, was the mainstream media's generally miserable failure -- also highlighted by Stewart -- in covering the 9/11 responders' legislation before Stewart's broadcasts. Stewart didn't just blast the Congress, remember, he blasted news organizations, too, for the latest example of their chronically short attention spans.

When Murrow took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy nearly half a century ago, he had far more to lose than Stewart did when he lobbied for the federal legislation. Murrow was standing up to bullies -- horrible, powerful bullies -- who might have ended his career and destroyed his network. By comparison, Stewart was merely speaking out against the way politics and journalism too often works in Washington. But both Murrow and Stewart dramatically changed public perceptions about a current event. Both men stuck their necks out. Both went first into a sort of no-man's-land. It is probably true that only Murrow in his time had the bona fides to stand up to McCarthy (and don't forget, Murrow waited years before doing so). But of all the media people who could have stood up in late 2010 for the brave, sick men and women who went into the rubble of September 11, 2001 only Stewart had both the will and the chops to do so in earnest. Does that make his courage any less impressive? Not in my book. Not when compared with so many other broadcasters and journalists who thought they had more important stories to file.

Courage in broadcasting, or in journalism in general, is not a zero sum game. Praising Stewart for his "mad as hell ain't gonna take it anymore" moment is no slight to Murrow or any other journalist who risks criticism and vitriol for speaking truth to power. Any comparison between the men diminishes neither. Let the historians and biographers correct me if I am wrong, but I believe Murrow would have applauded Stewart's role in redirecting public opinion back to some of the heroes who ran toward the rubble in Lower Manhattan in September 2001. And I believe Murrow would have endorsed Stewart's critical view of the media's role in the affair -- especially the navel-gazing that has occurred since the passage of the legislation. Murrow may have searched for light but he is known today for the passion, the heat, he brought to his best work. I believe history will judge Stewart similarly, in this instance and hopefully again in the future.

Hopefully indeed.

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