Jon Stewart can throw the timely changeup

Fans of bombast and ideological purity welcomed one of their champions, Keith Olbermann, back to television this week. His first hour on Current TV on Monday made clear Olbermann will deliver the same raw meat his liberal fans so missed since he was run off by MSNBC. (On Ronald Reagan: “He’s dead. He was a lousy president. And he helped keep Kadafi in power.”)

The host’s Current TV debut seemed to confirm another truth of the conventional wisdom, 2011 edition: that the winning formula for political talk requires perfecting a single ideological pitch and then throwing it over and over again.

That may make for good business at MSNBC, Fox News and, eventually, for Al Gore’s struggling Current, but it mostly makes for television that’s deadly predictable and dull. That’s why it’s such a whimsical blessing that cable also offers up at least one man willing to throw the occasional changeup — Jon Stewart.

He’s typically harder on the right than on the left, but Stewart’s biggest loyalty — as he proved again in a “Fox News Sunday” interview — has been to deflating hypocrisy. And to laughs. Though Stewart had to fight to make that case to Fox’s Chris Wallace, who bored in on the comedian as if he were a presidential contender, one intent on concealing his craven liberal underpinnings.


Wallace spent more than 20 minutes thrusting and parrying, throwing supposedly incriminating video in the face of the star of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” who maintained his cool and stayed out of the defensive crouch. The biggest revelation this hectoring produced: an acknowledgment from Stewart that he once voted for Republican George H.W. Bush for president and that (gracious!) his “comedy is informed by ideology.”

That’s not to say the comedian — who in recent years has become America’s best known and most acerbic media critic — always fought fair in his most recent appearance on Fox News. When he dubbed the news network’s viewers “consistently” the most “misinformed” media consumers, he overreached. By early this week the fact-check site had smacked him down — saying the public’s news literacy is a mixed bag and that surveys have reached varied results about the knowledge level of Fox News viewers.

But Stewart is far from the ideologue that Wallace tried to offer up for his viewers. When asked tartly by the host the last Republican he supported for president, Stewart offered coolly “H.W.” He said he supported the elder Bush when he ran against Michael Dukakis in 1988.

The acknowledgment that he had voted for Bush 41 (“There was an integrity about him that I respected greatly,” Stewart offered earnestly) made me curious about what Stewart had said previously about the first Bush presidency. He hadn’t done much, it turns out, other than a few old-age bits, since the elder Bush had been out of office six years by the time Stewart took over “The Daily Show.”

But in my search for Stewart-Bush clips, I stumbled over a lot of other old “Daily Show” segments. And plenty backed up his claim that, though his humor can be ideological and not uncommonly liberal, it’s far from dogmatic. To cite one example: A June 2009 segment in which The Daily Show’ screened umpteen clips of candidate Obama’s lofty election-era talk about transparency. Stewart then followed, in his brutal fashion, with a series of follow-up clips, showing multiple occasions when the administration called for withholding information.

Stewart has spent a lot of time pulverizing the non-Fox cable world as well, particularly CNN. No trend or hiccup at the “worldwide leader in news” seems to escape unscathed — he has belittled a new feature that lets viewers pick top stories and recently mocked Wolf Blitzer, who insisted he hates raunchy stories like the Anthony Weiner sex scandal, at about the time CNN cut away from a Nancy Pelosi news conference because the politician wouldn’t answer questions about Anthony Weiner.

Never mind that kind of record, though. Fox’s Wallace had fitted Stewart for an ideological straitjacket and the Fox talker did his best to prevent his guest from slipping out of it. Maybe Wallace, one of the network’s toughest questioners, expended too much energy trying to pin down the slippery progressive.

Before he knew it, the Fox host found the tables turned. Stewart wondered whether Wallace really believed that Fox News was equivalent ideologically (though on the other end of the spectrum) to NBC News.


“I think we’re the counterweight,” Wallace said. “I think they have a liberal agenda. I think we tell the other side of the story.”

That’s a perfectly legitimate position and one that doubtless appeals to many viewers. It’s only problematic when compared to Fox’s own “fair and balanced” sloganeering. Instead, Wallace’s words seemed to confirm Fox’s intent to weigh down one end of the ideological scale.

What Stewart later called “the takeaway moment from the entire interview” didn’t go on the air, though, as it was edited out of the Sunday show. (It appeared along with the rest of the interview on the Fox News website.) Also on the cutting-room floor, for that matter, was Stewart’s hit on a top Fox News executive, Bill Sammon, exposed in a recent airing of leaked internal memos for ordering his reporters to adhere to conservative-friendly rhetoric on the air.

Stewart’s key argument with cable news and other media outlets is not ideological rigidity but the habit of filling gaping news holes with “sensationalism and conflict.”


The comedian did not have to look far for confirmation. The Huffington Post headlined its story on his appearance on Fox with a screaming, all-caps headline based on one snippet of the showdown: “YOU’RE INSANE!”

“The Daily Show,” per custom, put the evidence right before us. “Here’s what I want to know,” Stewart asked, in conclusion. “What font would you use when man lands on Mars?”

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