The serious side of Jon Stewart

The man who is famous for lampooning politicians is now forging a reputation as a political campaigner himself

Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine. In America's angriest political landscape in living memory, where bickering lawmakers pursue self interest ahead of the public good and the corridors of power resound to the word "no", one public figure proved this week that he stands alone in his capacity to get things done. He is Jon Stewart: comedian, host of The Daily Show and the country's unofficial satirist-in-chief.

Two months after enticing roughly a quarter of a million people to his "Rally to Restore Sanity", and a month after a poll pegged him as the "most trusted figure" in TV news, Stewart, 48, has successfully concluded a campaign to steer a piece of legislation called the James Zadroga Act through the US Senate. In doing so, he scored a signal victory against Republican members of the highest legislative body of the most powerful nation on earth.

The coup cemented Stewart's position as the nearest thing liberal America has to a head rabble-rouser and saw him lauded by The New York Times as today's reincarnation of the crusading reporters Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite. In the internet era, the newspaper argued, his ability to carry public opinion and exert genuine influence on the political process proves that "comedy on television, more than journalism on television, may be the most effective outlet for stirring debate and effecting change in public policy".

It's difficult to say whether Stewart now has as much clout on the left of America's political spectrum as polemicists such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck boast on the right. But he certainly reaches a sexier demographic. While the average viewer of Fox News is in his seventh decade, fans of Comedy Central, The Daily Show's cable channel, are mostly under 40.

Online, viewers are younger still. And that's where Stewart comes into his own: his rapier wit and command of high and low culture might have been custom-designed for the internet. So he gets a relatively modest 1.3 million viewers, in a nation of over 300 million, on TV, but internet viewers magnify his reach exponentially.

Not only is Stewart's left-leaning take on current affairs easily digested into YouTube-length clips, it is also perfect fodder for influential websites such as Gawker and the Huffington Post, which stream those clips almost daily. In effect, this has made him the Crown Prince of gotcha journalism, 2.0.

"Because of technology, the difference between entertainers and politicians has never been less than it is now, and Jon Stewart is at the forefront of that," says Paul Levinson, the media don and author of the book New New Media.

"The explosive growth of handheld devices means that watching a clip of him has become as easy as it used to be to glance at a newspaper article, perhaps even easier. Although he's a comedian, what he says is now getting reported as news. Two or three times a week, MSNBC will talk extensively about one of his monologues. He's actually setting the agenda."

Stewart's strength has never been more starkly evident than during his coverage of the Zadroga legislation. The saga began when he angrily observed that Republican senators planned to filibuster a bill to create a $4bn fund for New York emergency workers who picked up serious illnesses inhaling toxic dust after 9/11.

Republican hostility to the fund, rooted in a knee-jerk antipathy to legislation which takes money from corporate America and gives to a public healthcare programme (it was to be financed by closing a tax loophole exploited by large companies), was lambasted by Stewart no less than four times this month.

He used segments of the show to dub the senators "Worst Responders" and highlight the hypocrisy of their previous support for first responders who had heroically volunteered to clean up after the worst terrorist attack in history.

His last programme before Christmas was then devoted entirely to the issue. He criticised the "disgusting" and "outrageous abdication of our responsibility to those who were most heroic on 9/11". He called it a "national shame" during a hard-hitting interview of four terminally ill former Ground Zero emergency workers who are yet to receive a penny in compensation almost a decade after the attacks.

And then something amazing happened: amid growing public outrage, sparked by Stewart's reports, the Republican "filibuster" vanished. The party's senators performed a remarkable volte-face and, last week, the Zadroga Act duly passed. Stewart, who championed the issue when barely any TV news programme or US newspaper had so much as mentioned it, was therefore credited with a single-handed political coup.

"Jon shining such a big, bright spotlight on Washington's potentially tragic failure to put aside differences and get this done for America was, without a doubt, one of the biggest factors that led to the final agreement," was how New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had supported the bill, put it.

So where does this leave Stewart? In the short term, it gives him a minor PR problem, since he has always maintained, against all available evidence, that he has no political clout, and should not therefore be described as a journalist. He even told the placard-wielding hordes at his rally in October that it was "not a political event in any way, shape or form".

Now, of course, Stewart's influence has been laid bare for all to see. After almost 11 years at The Daily Show, he must face the consequences of exerting that influence, good and bad. He may be a professional funnyman but he also now carries a burden of responsibility.

"Jon Stewart isn't just a comedian. Even though he styles himself as such, and keeps telling everyone 'I'm not a politician', he's overtly political in a lot of what he does," says James Rainey, a media commentator for The Los Angeles Times. "It's now obvious to everybody that he has a lot of power and some very bright people behind him."

The affair makes ugly reading for other US journalists, since it illustrates a disturbing malaise affecting America's declining traditional television and print news. The Republican effort to quietly prevent national heroes from getting proper medical care was a newsworthy story with widespread appeal. Yet it was entirely ignored by all of the network TV news shows and most major newspapers.

"How can you not be for heroic police and firefighters?" says Rainey.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea