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Posted by on Jan 11, 2011 in Arts & Entertainment, Politics | 0 comments

Jon Stewart Gives Up the Murrow Mantle

A Stewart fan, I tuned in to The Daily Show last night…

Glynnis MacNicol called it an emotional, moving monologue. OTB’s Doug Mataconis calls it the smartest reaction of anyone to the tragedy in Arizona. I was disappointed; I thought it a rambling abdication of the Murrow mantle. Not for its perspective — did anyone really expect the Restoring Sanity maestro to take sides? — but what ever happened to the show must go on?

In the monologue Stewart says, “frankly after watching the news all weekend all I want to do is visit with an old friend and perhaps trade insults about one another’s acting ability.” That’s followed by a repeat of Jason Jones’ field piece on Miami Beach seniors having sex and an interview with Dennis Leary. Stewart promises that he’ll return tonight to what he normally does, “which is highlight absurdity in a comical way that is a catharsis for people.”

Stewart has faced challenges like last night’s before. The show’s return after 9/11 also featured a monologue and repeats:

Since that time Stewart has grown. His stirring media critique on the mall was followed by nearly an hour with Maddow on the rally’s meaning and another with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Then he took up the 9/11 Bill, which seemed to refute at least some of what he said on the identity questions — Ideological or partisan? Activist or comedian-with-opinions? — he seemed to be trying to work through in those interviews.

Slate’s Christopher Beam:

Stewart has shown ambivalence about whether to insert himself into the political arena. When Rachel Maddow argued in an interview with Stewart last month that they both had political agendas, Stewart disagreed. The difference, he told Maddow, is that “You’re in the game.” Stewart said that at the Rally to Restore Sanity,

I could have gotten on the field. And people got mad that I didn’t. But that was the point. … The next thing I could do is step onto the field and go, So now, here’s what we’re gonna do. … But I don’t. That’s my failing. And my indulgence. But I feel like I am where I belong. … I don’t take any satisfaction in that. And I don’t take any satisfaction in just being a critic. Roger Ebert doesn’t make movies. So to say, Well, Roger, you’re in the game, well, no he’s not. He’s not making movies. He’s sitting in his seat saying, This movie sucks. That’s me.

With the 9/11 Bill he got in the game. And in it the NYTimes found echoes of Murrow:

Edward R. Murrow turned public opinion against the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s… Walter Cronkite’s editorial about the stalemate in the war in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968 convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that he had lost public support and influenced his decision a month later to decline to run for re-election.

Though the scale of the impact of Mr. Stewart’s telecast on public policy may not measure up to the roles that Mr. Murrow and Mr. Cronkite played, [Syracuse University professor of television Robert J.] Thompson said, the comparison is legitimate because the law almost surely would not have moved forward without him.

In my household there is a split over which of the two fake news titans, Stewart or Colbert, is favored. I tend to come down on the side of Colbert. Like MacNicol and Mataconis, my partner was impressed by Stewart’s words. He forgives the repeats saying Stewart was trying to take a moment for reflection. But the job is not to take a moment; the job is not to sit it out; the job is to say what he has to say, then move on to do something good!

In this, Colbert was a model:

That was followed by a skewering of Republican house members Mike Fitzpatrick and Pete Sessions for missing their swearing in (and potentially violating House ethics rules against fund raising on capitol grounds) and then a hilarious, repeat, send-up of an alien hunter. So Colbert did a repeat, too. But he played it differently. He stood by his character and stuck with his show and maybe that’s his advantage: he’s always in character.

Jon Stewart doesn’t have that luxury. Stewart is clearly correct when he observes that “unfortunately for our show, the closer that we have gotten towards discussing and dealing with current events, the harder it becomes in situations where reality is truly saddening.” But that comes with territory.

In a previous interview Bob Thompson observed to me that the Comedy Central platform “offers the exact format that is perfect for Stewart’s skills, but when he goes beyond that he can get in trouble.” The weekend’s events pushed him out of format. He was in trouble, he knew it, we saw it. Maybe that’s something more to like him for.

Stewart never asked for the Murrow mantle. The 9/11 Bill was an aberration. I look forward to tonight when he can comfortably get back to his favored format. And I’ll have a cathartic laugh along with him.

SEE ALSO: NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen‘s interesting comments on the Maddow Stewart interview. Among other things, Rosen sees Stewart suggesting in it a shift in the news axis from Left v. Right to corruption v. virtue.

This post has been tweaked (typos, phrasing, links) for clarity.

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